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Nurseries to get guidance on supporting children who think they are 'too fat'

Article By: Sue Learner

With nearly a quarter of childcare practitioners witnessing anxiety by children aged between three and five over their weight and body image, a guide has been developed to help them support children’s self-esteem.

The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) has launched a guide to body confidence for early years practitioners, after their research revealed that children as young as three are unhappy with their bodies.

They found that 24 per cent of childcare practitioners had seen body confidence issues in children aged three to five-years-old, with 71 per cent believing children are becoming anxious about their bodies at a younger age.

The PACEY research revealed that phrases such as ‘she/he is fat’ are commonplace in childcare settings, with 37 per cent of practitioners having heard these statements in their setting. Thirty-one per cent have heard a child label themselves fat.

One in ten have heard a child say they feel ugly, while 16 per cent of early years practitioners have witnessed children saying they wished they were as pretty or good looking as someone else. Around one in five (19 per cent) have also seen children reject food because ‘it will make them fat’.

Views could develop into eating disorders

Dr Jacqueline Harding, PACEY advisor and child development expert said: “By the age of three or four some children have already pretty much begun to make up their minds (and even hold strong views) about how bodies should look. There is also research evidence to suggest that some four-year-olds are aware of strategies as to how to lose weight.

“Of course, there is now mounting concern that the formation of these views (so early on in life) may develop into later eating disturbances or depression. We know for sure that early experiences matter the most and we need to be very careful about how (even inadvertently) we signal to children that they should think negatively about their bodies and how they look.”

She blames this on images on TV; images in story books and animations and general chat by adults about their bodies, dieting and cosmetic surgery. Girls were found to be much more conscious of how they look from an earlier age than boys.

Dr Harding, who has contributed to the Celebrating me: An Early Years Guide, added: “Early years practitioners are perfectly placed to promote positive body images as well as healthy lifestyles, and to provide the advice and guidance parents need if they are seeing signs of body anxieties in their children.

“Children look up to us and want to be like us, so we need to take care to talk about our own body in a positive way. We need to build a child’s self-confidence and self-image by focusing on who they are as a person – not what they look like.”

Early years practitioners think parents and peers have the biggest influence, with 37 per cent believing the anxieties they have witnessed stem from peer groups, while 32 per cent cited parents. A quarter think that the media is fuelling a culture of self-consciousness and anxiety. PACEY is the early years partner for Be Real, a national movement campaigning to change attitudes to body image, helping to put health above appearance.

Body confidence must be tackled at early age

Denise Hatton, YMCA England and Wales chief executive and a founding partner of the Be Real Campaign, said: “We know that in order to tackle body confidence later in life, it is essential that it begins from an early age.

“We are therefore delighted that PACEY, as our early years partner, has developed this excellent guide especially for early years practitioners. It brings together expert advice and practical ideas to support childcare professionals to help children establish the foundations for a healthy body image, high self-esteem and emotional wellbeing throughout their lives.”

Liz Bayram, PACEY’s chief executive spoke of being shocked at the findings that body image issues begin at a very young age and added: “We are delighted to have been able to work with the Be Real Campaign and a wide range of early years experts and practitioners on this guide. We hope it will help early years professionals support children in their care to develop a positive body image – and provide practical tips and ideas to help children feel body confident right from the start.”

She also pointed out that while early years settings are already supporting children’s social and emotional development, in particular helping to build their self-esteem, this is a challenging area that the current Early Years Foundation Stage framework (and its equivalent in Wales) does little to tackle.

To address this, PACEY would like to see the EYFS when it is updated to reflect new guidance on physical activity in the early years, also changed to include more guidance on positive body image.

“With this support, early years practitioners will be well placed to promote positive body images as well as healthy lifestyles and to provide the advice and guidance parents need if they are seeing signs of body anxieties in their children. This could make a significant contribution to ensuring more young children can become body confident,” she said.

Some tips on supporting children to be body confident

• Be aware children learn by watching and listening – take care to talk about your own body in a positive way (even if you don’t feel like it!)

• Build their self-confidence and self-image by focusing on who they are as a person – not what they look like – for example, praise them for acts of kindness to others and not for looking pretty/handsome

• Gradually, in an age appropriate way, begin to point out how photographs and images are changed to be improved

Celebrating me: An Early Years Guide is a downloadable guide covering everything from expert advice on how to engage in conversations about body image, practical activities and top tips to promote body confidence in settings as well as ideas for linking this into their Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) or Foundation Phase practice.

Celebrating me: An Early Years Guide is available to download for free for PACEY members or £3.50 for non- members at:


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