02 August 2021

​ In defence of the Choking Guidelines for Early Learning Services

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The media and parents nationwide have slammed the updated food guidelines for early childcare centres; supposedly another example of ‘PC gone mad.’

As a registered nutritionist and mother of two toddlers, I have followed the conversation closely and have plucked up the courage to share my opinion. I am wholeheartedly supportive of the new guidelines. However, I believe it was the lack of communications accompanying the guidelines that resulted in the confusion and uproar.

First, let me provide a little background. The recent Ministry of Health’s guidelines titled ‘Reducing food-related choking for babies and young children at early learning services’ aim to do just that – minimise the food-related choking hazards for New Zealand children. The risk feels very real after an incident at a day-care in 2016, where a 22-month-old toddler choked on a raw apple leaving him wheelchair-bound and brain-damaged.

Everyone agrees that the safety of children in early childcare centres is paramount. However, the extensive list of foods banned by the new guidelines, including popcorn, dried fruit, seeds, rice crackers and raw pineapple left many parents and early learning services confused about what foods they could safely feed their tamariki. Early learning services that previously offered food were so nervous about doing something wrong that we have heard reports of some centres stopping the provision of food or removing vegetable gardens. This is certainly not an intended outcome of these guidelines, with kids missing out on kai and learning experiences. The guidelines were also taken out of context as parents thought they were no longer ‘allowed’ to feed their children these foods at home or on family outings. The difference between home and early learning services is the level of supervision. At early childhood centres, the active supervision ratio guidelines mean that those under two years of age can have up to five children per adult, and for 2–5-year-olds there can be just one adult for 10 children.

The thought of my children choking terrifies me, but it is important for children to experience a variety of foods in a stage-appropriate way. This means making risk judgement calls daily. I avoid small round foods as these pose the biggest choking risk - all grapes and cherry tomatoes are cut in my household. However, what I offer depends on the eating style and skill of each child, and the level of supervision I can provide. My 16-month-old eats everything he is offered with gusto. It’s a blessing but also a curse because in an instant he can stuff every bit of food into his mouth at once. His little chipmunk cheeks are often bursting and this is why I feel relieved knowing that he is not being offered high-risk choking foods when adequate supervision cannot be guaranteed.

The uproar from parents and the media could have been avoided if the Ministry of Health had taken a more proactive communications approach.

Here are a few simple things that could have made all the difference:

-          Providing resources on alternative food ideas or example menus to early learning centres that provide food onsite

-          Providing a support service or a helpline for teachers, parents and cooks providing advice and answers to FAQ

-          Facilitating proactive communications via traditional or social media to support parents with the new lunchbox rules – via each early learning centre and the government

So no, this isn’t an example of ‘PC gone mad.’ It’s an example of an evidence-based recommendation that simply lacked a communications campaign to enable understanding and implementation.

This is exactly the sort of communications work our FoodGroup team do as food, nutrition, health, and sustainability experts. The team is made up of registered nutritionists and dietitians, seasoned FMCG members, food creatives and food-systems enthusiasts. If you have something to communicate about food let’s talk.