About one quarter of Australian pre-school children are overweight. Early childhood is an important period for establishing behaviours that will affect weight gain and health across the life course. Early feeding choices, including breast and/or formula, timing of introduction of solids, physical activity and electronic media use among infants and young children are considered likely determinants of childhood obesity. Parents play a primary role in shaping these behaviours through parental modelling, feeding styles and the food and physical activity environments provided. Children from low socio-economic backgrounds have higher rates of obesity making early intervention particularly important. However, such families are often more difficult to reach and may be less likely to participate in traditional programs that support healthy behaviours.
Parents across all socio-demographic groups frequently access primary health care (PHC) services including nurses in community health services and general practices, providing unparalleled opportunity for engagement to influence family behaviours. One emerging and promising area that might maximise engagement at a low cost is the provision of support for healthy parenting through electronic media such as the Internet or smart phones. This is referred to as mobile or m-health.
The Growing Healthy study aimed to explore the feasibility of providing information and support for healthy parenting through electronic media in the form of an application for smart phones (app) and a website. Our background research suggested this as an emerging and promising area for engagement with families with young children and may provide a referral option for primary health care providers. It is also an intervention with a relatively low cost and potential for high reach.
As families with young children have high levels of engagement with PHC services, these could be leveraged to recruit study participants via referral to the app. Complementing and not replacing the information and support provided by these existing primary health care services was an important objective as was ensuring the online information and support aligned with that provided by primary health care services and national guidelines. The aim was to make the app a ‘trusted source’ of information and support for families with children from birth to nine months of age.