Helen Martin: In the parent trap of changed days

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WHEN I was a child and into my teens, it was not unusual to see children in calipers, clunking and ugly leg braces made of metal and leather straps. That was down to either the polio outbreak in the early 1950s, or rickets.

Since rickets is a result of deficiency of vitamin D, found mostly in eggs which had been rationed in war time, liver and oily fish, it was hardly surprising that children were subjected to daily doses of cod liver oil and at least once a week served up liver on the school dinner menu. In those days we ate what we were given or went without.

By the time I was a teenager and working in a local hospital, there were still cases of childhood rickets – and that was 1970, long after diets had improved and the dreaded experience of holding a child’s nose in order to pour the vile oil down their neck had ceased.

Most of the children I saw with rickets in hospital were the sons and daughters of brown and black-skinned immigrants. And that was because the best way, apart from diet, the body has of producing vitamin D is by exposure to sun. Dark-skinned people needed more sun, as they would have had in their country of origin, than Scotland could provide.

Those earlier immigrants understandably continued with their own cultural “sunny” diet rather than compensating for our dismal weather, and with a form of dress that often blocked what sunlight there was.

Perhaps more rampant racism or shyness also kept them indoors more . . . who knows?

Now rickets is back. And once again, in both England and Scotland, we are back to supplementing children’s diets with extra vitamins.

This time, there is no food rationing and the causes of “new” rickets – soft or deformed bones – are more questions of lifestyle choice.

Try persuading a child to eat oily fish or liver today. It’s almost as hard as persuading them to turn off the PC, tablet or games console and play outside. Not to mention having the opportunity to do so as children used to when mums were at home all day and children were allowed to roam free on the basis that they were unlikely to get run over or abducted.

Now many kids spend a large proportion of time in nurseries or after-school clubs, some of which have little access to the outdoors even on sunny days, and are ferried to and fro in cars for expediency and safety.

The other obvious cause according to experts is, rather bizarrely, the overzealousness of parents protecting their children from the perceived risks of skin cancer by excessive use of sunscreen and sunblock. But then, what’s “excessive”? Aren’t we told to be diligent, limit exposure, and re-apply liberally even on warm Scottish days, let alone on holiday abroad?

Where rickets was once caused by poverty, rationing and ignorance, it now seems to be caused by too much appetising food to choose from, too many indoor gadgets to play with and greater awareness of health risks such as sunburn.

Parenting doesn’t get easier as time goes by. It just gets more 
complicated.