Dr Megan Hammersley. Photo: Paul Jones

Online community helps parents navigate nutrition with children

Online community helps parents navigate nutrition with children

Dr Megan Hammersley’s research examines how to support families to establish healthy lifestyles

Every parent knows the frustration of trying to convince a small child to eat their vegetables (or sometimes, to just eat at all).

Dr Megan Hammersley is all too aware of this daily struggle and is on a mission to provide parents with the tools they need to help their children lead a happy, healthy life.

The dietitian spent many years working in private practice, where she often treated adults who were dealing with chronic diseases caused by lack of nutrition or sedentary lifestyles.

This, combined with her own experience as a parent of two children, convinced Dr Hammersley of the need to help parents navigate the early childhood years to provide the basic building blocks that will take them through the rest of their lives.

“We know that children who are overweight or obese often take that into adulthood,” Dr Hammersley said. “But there was a real gap in the knowledge around the preschool age as to how to get the healthy message across and help parents feel empowered and confident to deal with these issues.”

Today (Thursday 7 November), Dr Hammersley’s years of research into supporting parents in establishing healthy lifestyles for their children culminated in her graduation with a PhD from the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong.

Throughout the course of her doctorate, Dr Hammersley has been developing and refining an online platform called Time2bHealthy, which supports parents with preschool aged children – originally established and piloted by supervisor, Dr Rachel Jones. The 11-week interactive program provides families with the tools and strategies they need to work towards a healthy lifestyle.

Dr Hammersley has taken the concept and run with it, crafting a program that is interactive, enjoyable, and informative for families.

 “We started recruiting for participants for the Time2bHealthy program, from Wollongong, Nowra, Sydney and Melbourne, and over the course of the program what we found was that parents felt much more confident in their ability to provide those healthy messages to their children.

“There was a reduction in children’s intake of junk food, parents were less likely to put excessive pressure on their children to eat (which can be counter-productive), and it also gave the parents a greater sense of self-efficacy.”

Delivered in six modules, focusing on activity, sleep, screen time, and healthy eating, Time2bHealthy also enabled the participants to set goals to work towards as a family. A Facebook group gave them the chance to bounce ideas and communicate with other parents.

Following the success of Time2bHealthy, Dr Hammersley, now an Associate Research Fellow at UOW’s Early Start, is working with NSW Health and the University of Newcastle on a research project called “Time for Healthy Habits”, which is funded through a NSW Health Translational Research Grant. This project examines whether delivering health-related information is more effective for parents via the phone or online.

“We are figuring out how things work in the real world, how this information will be most helpful to parents,” Dr Hammersley said.

She is proud of the work she has done in this space and said it is about supporting parents to make healthy choices, not just for their children but for the family as a whole.

“The NSW Government has a strong focus on the first 2000 days of a child’s life – from conception to the aged of five – as the most important in giving children the best start,” Dr Hammersley said.

“At the same time, parents are worried about providing their children with the best nutrition, but also their development, they are working, and are under a lot of stress, and are surrounded by an increasingly unhealthy food environment. Parents today are really busy so this is about taking the pressure off and trying to make it as easy as possible.”

Dr Hammersley is thrilled to have finished her PhD at Early Start, under the supervision of Dr Rachel Jones and Professor Tony Okely, whom she describes as incredibly supportive. Her husband and children have been integral to helping her throughout the three years of her postgraduate degree.

As she continues work on her research project, Dr Hammersley said is hoping to stay in the world of academia, focusing on childhood nutrition, for a long time to come.

 “I’m very passionate about this area of research.”