Discover everything you need to know about children’s healthcare in the UK, including routine check-ups, vaccinations, pediatricians, and more.
Nothing is more precious than your child’s health and for expats moving to the UK, understanding what healthcare services are available for your little ones is a top priority. So to help you navigate this system, this article explains how to best protect and nurture them during your stay in the country. This includes how to use the resources of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), and other providers, from birth through to teenage years.
It includes the following information:
- Children’s healthcare in the UK
- How to access healthcare for your children
- Taking your child to the pediatrician
- Taking your child to see a doctor or specialist
- Children’s hospitals in the UK
- Children’s dental care in the UK
- Mental healthcare in the UK
- Preventative healthcare programs for children
- Useful resources
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Children’s healthcare in the UK
All children living in the UK are entitled to free healthcare from the National Health Service (NHS). This healthcare is comprehensive and covers everything from maternity services and parenting classes to high-cost treatment for children with special needs and disabilities.
For additional peace of mind, families can also take out private health insurance. That said, only 11% of Brits choose to do so. In fact, according to The King’s Fund, an independent charitable organization that works to improve health and care in England, there is relatively little private healthcare expenditure on children and young people in the UK.
However, despite the free services available for children throughout the country, reports have highlighted key areas where the UK is falling behind. For instance, independent health think tank the Nuffield Trust compares data from 14 similar wealthy countries. It concludes that UK performance is poor on childhood mortality and obesity.
Moreover, in March 2020, The Week magazine featured the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s State of Child Heath 2020 report. It also referred to high childhood obesity in the UK and said that the rate of childhood mortality was among the highest in Europe, with 3.9 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2018. Of the 25 nations listed, only Poland (with 4 per 1,000) and Latvia (4.1) have a higher rate of deaths among babies under one. Meanwhile, Finland has the lowest mortality rate, at 2 per 1,000. Both reports claim that poverty contributes to child health problems in the UK.
How to access healthcare for your children
You must register your family with a General Practitioner (GP) in order to access NHS healthcare services. Registering is a simple process and it’s free. In essence, all you will require is an address. You can read more about this in our article on doctors in the UK.
In June 2021, The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that total spending on healthcare in the UK in 2020 was approximately £269 billion. This represents a 20% increase since 2019 and was largely attributed to COVID-19 patient treatment and the cost of vaccines.
Public healthcare for children in the UK
Essentially, everyone who lives in the UK is entitled to public healthcare provided by the NHS. Children also receive free dental care, free medicines prescribed by doctors, and free vaccinations against a range of diseases. Operations, cancer treatment, and disability services are also free.
You can also access a full range of pediatric and specialist health services for your child through the NHS. And while it is also possible to pay for private care, you will typically need to get a referral from your GP first. The NHS works with local council children’s services, and a range of specialist agencies, to provide ways to improve child health.
Community healthcare services for families and children are available through local Children’s Centers. NHS nurses and other children’s healthcare professionals offer care and advice in areas such as nutrition, healthy weight, and breastfeeding. Meanwhile, programs for healthy eating, physical activity, and mental wellbeing are delivered through schools (e.g., the MEND program).
Private healthcare for children in the UK
Because the tax-based NHS aims to provide world-class treatment free to all residents, health insurance is not compulsory in the UK. Consequently, the number of people who pay for private treatment is relatively small. That said, the NHS is under severe pressure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and waiting lists for treatment have grown to unprecedented levels. In January 2022, the British Medical Council (BMA) described the backlog for treatment as “alarming” and claimed there were six million people on waiting lists, which continue to grow.
More people turn to private health providers to avoid long waits for treatment. In September 2021, inews reported that private treatment was booming. For instance, one private company, which has 39 hospitals across the UK, had seen an 81% increase in self-pay spending. This suggests that people without health insurance are increasingly turning to private healthcare.
Fortunately, there are plenty of options available for expats seeking private health insurance. It is possible to buy insurance cover specifically for children as well as policies for all members of your family. Internet comparison sites such as ActiveQuote can also prove to be useful in finding a good deal.
Some of the well-established operators that offer child-only and family policies include:
The UK market for health insurance may be small compared to the USA and Europe, but there is plenty of competition, and it pays to shop around.
Taking your child to the pediatrician
There is no need in the UK for parents to register their child with a pediatrician. Newborns are monitored by NHS midwives and health visitors, either at the mother’s home or at child health clinics. It is also normal for sick babies and children up to 16 years of age to be treated by a GP. If further specialist pediatric care is needed, the GP will make a referral. Specialist pediatricians normally conduct their clinics in hospitals and their services are free through the NHS.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health reports that there are about 4,000 whole-time equivalent (WTE) pediatric consultants working in the UK. Most are hospital-based and care for children from birth to the age of 16. Neonatology pediatricians specialize in looking after newborn babies, which is usually in intensive care units. Meanwhile, community-based pediatricians work with children with disabilities and developmental, social, or behavior problems. And cardiology pediatricians diagnose and treat children with heart conditions. You can search for a private consultant pediatrician here.
Routine childhood health check-ups
Routine health, wellbeing, and development check-ups for children are well established in the UK and are mandated by the NHS. You can find the schedule of health and development reviews for babies on the NHS website. Check-ups are conducted by midwives and health visitors and can be done at the child’s home, a GP surgery, a baby clinic, or a children’s center.
Children are screened for rare diseases and to identify any problems with hearing and sight. Every child has a personal health diary to record weight and height at regular intervals, and document vaccinations, illnesses, medications, and any health issues.
Further checks are carried out once children start school. The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMS) is a long-standing NHS initiative to assess obesity. Notably, parents can withdraw their children from the height and weight checks carried out in reception class (aged 4 to 5) and year 6 (aged 10 to 11). The data is used to inform national and local health initiatives and exercise advice.
NHS guidelines recommend that all children be screened for vision and hearing during their first year at school.
Vaccinations for children
Vaccines are routinely given to children in the UK and there is almost universal take-up. You can find the UK vaccination schedule for children aged eight weeks up to 14 on the NHS website.
Parents are contacted by their GP’s surgery to make appointments for their child’s vaccinations. The 6-in-1 vaccine is one of the first routinely given to children. It is a single injection that provides protection against:
Children in the UK are also vaccinated against pneumococcal (pneumonia), meningococcal (meningitis), rotavirus, Hib/MenC, MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), HPV (human papillomavirus), and children’s flu. A 3-in-1 booster to upgrade protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and polio is also given in school to children aged 14.
All these vaccines are free, but not mandatory, although only a small percentage of parents refuse them. In 2019, New Scientist magazine reported that the then health minister was considering a change in policy. It said that the government was concerned that the take-up of the MMR vaccine for two-year-olds had fallen to 90.3%.
Taking your child to see a doctor or specialist
If your child is in immediate danger and in need of emergency care, you should call 999 for an ambulance, or go directly to a hospital Accident and Emergency (A&E) department. Otherwise, your first point of call should always be your doctor’s surgery. GPs are effectively the gatekeepers to the NHS. Your GP will examine your child and, if necessary, refer the patient for specialized pediatric care. This may well involve a trip to a hospital where pediatricians are usually based. Specialist help is available for a range of behavioral and development needs as well as medical conditions, mental health, and disabilities.
A study by the General Medical Council (GMC) shows that only the US and Australia have more recognized medical specialties than the UK. This means that patients have access to a greater variety of specialist medical care in the UK than elsewhere in Europe.
There are officially 61 specialist disciplines covered by trained doctors in the UK, which is almost twice as many as the Netherlands. The GMC provides a list of the recognized specialties that are being practiced. If your GP refers your child to a specialist or another health professional, such as a dentist or ophthalmologist, you may have the right to choose which hospital in England to go to for the first outpatient appointment. You can also choose which consultant-led team will be in charge of the treatment.
Notably, while your GP will recommend a specialist or hospital, you are free to seek out your own. The NHS provides an online search tool to help patients choose one by name, location, and specialty. You are also free to opt for a private consultation or treatment if you prefer.
Children’s hospitals in the UK
There are dedicated maternity and children’s wards in most general hospitals in the UK. Additionally, there are specialist children’s hospitals at key sites throughout the country. These include world-renowned hospitals such as Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London. This offers 63 clinical specialties, which is the widest range of health services for children in the UK.
Other specialist children’s hospitals of note include The Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, which is the biggest in the country, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, and Birmingham Children’s Hospital. There are also hospitals for children in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, and Bristol. Other centers of excellence for children are strategically sited throughout the UK.
The British Association of Paediatric Surgeons (BAPS) provides details of hospitals providing special pediatric surgical services throughout the UK. It also lists surgeons by region to help parents locate a suitable specialist. If you require maternity services, it’s worth checking your options with your GP. Notably, you can choose your midwife team and how you would like to give birth, depending on your individual circumstances and a risk assessment. You can read more about this in our UK pregnancy guide.
Children’s dental care in the UK
In the UK, dental care is free for children up to the age of 18, and for those in full-time education up to the age of 19. However, you will need to find an NHS dentist who is willing to add new patients to their list, and this is not easy as the system is chronically overloaded. This is largely due to COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 which caused big increases in waiting lists for dental treatment. In January 2022, The Daily Express newspaper highlighted the crisis in finding an NHS dentist.
The NHS advises parents to take their children to the dentist as soon as their first milk teeth appear and to arrange check-ups for them at regular intervals as advised by the dentist, or at least once a year.
Despite dental care being free for children in the UK, the NHS concedes that only around 29.8% of children visited an NHS dentist in the 12 months leading up to 31 December 2020. However, again, this is partly due to the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent restrictions on movement.
A YouGov survey from 2019 also highlighted the lack of education that UK children receive about their oral health. It found that only 29% of British children aged five to 16 were given lessons in school on how to look after their teeth.
Mental healthcare in the UK
According to the Local Government Association (LGA), at least one in six children and young people in the UK had a diagnosable mental health condition in January 2022. And more than 4,000 children were admitted to inpatient mental healthcare in 2019/20. Emotional disorders, particularly anxiety and depression, increased during the COVID-19 lockdowns and movement restrictions. The LGA identifies online bullying as another strain on the emotional health of young people.
The NHS has established pathways to treatment for children with mental health problems and provides advice to parents about spotting signs, support organizations, and how to seek professional help.
A range of specialists can help
Parents, carers, and young people can receive direct support through NHS children and young people’s mental health services (CYPMHS). Local and regional teams provide access to the following:
- social workers
- support workers
- occupational therapists
- psychological therapists – this may include child psychotherapists, family psychotherapists, play therapists, and creative art therapists
- primary mental health workers
- education mental health practitioners – who work in mental health support teams in schools and colleges
- children’s wellbeing practitioners
- specialist substance misuse workers
Getting help from a specialist CYPMHS is different depending on where you live, and waiting times can also vary. Most CYPMHS have their own website with information about access and referrals. You can also look at your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) website and search for children and young people’s mental health.
There are many services that provide help without a referral, including crisis helplines that anyone can call. You can find out where to get urgent help for mental health on the NHS website. Additionally, voluntary community-based youth information services often have drop-in sessions for advice and professional help.
The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families website provides information and a video about how young people receive support from mental health services. The Royal College of Psychiatrists website also has material about who’s who in CYPMHS, along with information for parents and young people.
Preventative healthcare programs for children
In 2009, the UK government established a national Healthy Child Programme that is designed to offer every family support to make healthy choices. The program concentrates on improving health and development in the first few years of life through immunizations and detailed monitoring. School nurses, health visitors, and community nurses intervene where problems with children are identified. This may be related to obesity and diet or other health problems. It can also include issues around the quality of care children receive at home.
Specific help is available for single parents at Gingerbread groups. This national charity has been operating nationwide as a provider of support services for one-parent families since 1918. It also organizes events and holidays for single-parent families. There are two million single-parent families in the UK.
GP surgeries normally have an exhaustive list of community healthcare initiatives for parents and children. Local councils can also point families towards groups offering support. Groups such as Home-Start exist to help parents who are struggling to cope. In 2021, it supported 56,000 children in 27,000 families. There are more than 180 local, independent Home-Starts working in 71% of local authority areas across the UK. Around 13,500 volunteers visit family homes to provide support.
There are also mum and toddler groups in communities throughout the UK. Information is usually available from midwives and doctors, local libraries and council offices, churches, or online search engines.
- NHS – provides information on a range of topics relating to children’s health in the UK
- GOV UK – provides information on Sure Start centers which give help and advice on child and family health and parenting
- BAPS – the official website of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons
- GOV UK – offers information about choosing maternity services in the UK
- NHS – an index of regional NHS websites that provide further information about the healthcare system and services
- NHS App – provides further information about the app and how to download and use it
- Citizens Advice – provides detailed information on NHS patients’ rights