Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Under-5s physical activity guidelines parents may not want to hear

Evidence suggests that more physical activity leads to better motor skills and is associated with better communication skills for toddlers. Photo / iStock
Evidence suggests that more physical activity leads to better motor skills and is associated with better communication skills for toddlers. Photo / iStock

Children under 5 need at least three hours of physical activity a day, a daily maximum of one hour screen time - and no screen time at all for infants and toddlers - parents are likely to be told as part of official guidelines.

The Ministry of Health has today published a review into the resources and guidance on physical activity for children under 5 that will inform new national guidelines.

The guidelines are yet to be developed, but the review has recommended the group of experts chosen for the task consider guidelines that could come as a shock to some parents -- particularly those who allow their children to use an iPad or smartphone.

Guidelines could differ for infants (under 12 months), toddlers (aged 1 to 2 years) and pre-schoolers.

Guidelines the expert group have been asked to consider include:

• Toddlers and pre-schoolers should get at least three hours of physical activity each day.

• Pre-schoolers should be sedentary for no more than one hour at a time (excluding sleeping and eating).

• Children under 2 years should have no screen time. For older children, screen time should be limited to less than an hour a day, although less is better.

The 2013/14 Health Survey showed that more than half of children aged 2 to 4 years old watched two or more hours of television a day. That figure is higher for Maori and Pacific children.

The review, ordered by Health Minister Jonathan Coleman as part of the Government's childhood obesity measures, found academic evidence linking physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep with healthy growth and development for very young children was limited.

However, there was still sufficient evidence to suggest that exercise, sleep and sedentary time were associated with health to varying degrees.

Evidence suggested that more physical activity led to better motor skills and was associated with better communication skills for toddlers. More time in front of the TV or tablet is associated with poor sleep outcomes for toddlers and pre-schoolers.

Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States already provide physical activity and sedentary behaviour recommendations for children aged under 5, and recommendations are highly consistent between countries.

These include three hours of physical activity spread through the day, limited sedentary time, and no screen time for children aged under 2 years.

In the United States, parents are advised to limit time infants spend in restricted seating like swings, strollers and high chairs and exersaucers.

Dr Coleman said children under 5s learn basic skills through movement and play, and that formed good habits for life.

"It's important families are supported to help children be active and healthy, as well as get the right amount of sleep."

The Ministry of Health will work with Sport NZ and the Health Promotion Agency to develop the new physical activity guidelines for under-5s as part of the Eating and Activity Guidelines series.

The review was undertaken for the ministry by Wellington's Allen and Clarke.

What other countries tell parents

Australia

• Children under 5 should not be sedentary for more than an hour a day, except for during sleep.

• Children under 2 should not watch TV or use other electronic media. Older kids should be limited to less than an hour a day.

Canada

• Screen time not recommended for kids under 2, and limit it to one hour a day for children aged up to 4 years.

United States

• Limit time infants spend in restricted seating like swings, strollers and high chairs. Don't let kids sit for more than 15 to 30 minutes, unless during meals or nap time.

• Only use equipment like exersaucers for limited periods of time.

• No screen time for kids under 2. For children aged 2 to 4 years, in a childcare setting, limit screen time to no more than 30 minutes a week.

- NZ Herald

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