In a national study of Australian young people’s perspectives, health ranked as the second most important domain, after family, for having a good life (Redmond et al. 2016). Good health influences how children feel and go about their daily lives, as it can affect participation in family life, schooling, social and sporting activities.

The foundations for good health start during the antenatal period and early years and can have long-term impacts on a child’s later life—see Health of mothers and babies. Targeting risk factors in children can reduce preventable chronic disease in adulthood and equips children with the best life chances (AHMAC 2015; AIHW 2019b). Investment in early years of child development also provides an opportunity for substantial health gains across the lifespan (AHMAC 2015).

Profile of children

At 30 June 2019, an estimated 4.7 million children aged 0–14 lived in Australia. Boys made up a slightly higher proportion of the population than girls (51% compared with 49%) (ABS 2019a).

Who are Australia’s children?

Defining the age range for children varies across Australian and international data collections and reporting. Definitions can be based on theories of child development and/or levels of dependency at different stages from birth to youth, or legal definitions.

For the purposes of reporting national Children’s Headline Indicators, children are defined as aged 0–12, covering the developmental stages from the antenatal period and infancy through to the end of primary school. Defining children as those aged 0–12 aligns with the AIHW Australia’s Children report, and complements the age range in the National Youth Information Framework of 12–24 years. For information about the health of those aged 12–24, see Health of young people.

Throughout this page, where data for 0–12 year olds are either not available or the numbers are too small for robust reporting, a different age range (most commonly 0–14 years) is reported. This is particularly the case for health-related data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which are commonly used on this page.

The number of children in Australia is projected to reach 6.4 million by 2048 (ABS 2018d). However, due to sustained low fertility rates and increasing life expectancy, the number of children as a proportion of the entire population has steadily fallen, from 29% in 1968 to 19% in 2018. This proportion is projected to fall to 18% by 2048 (ABS 2018d).

Australia’s children

Of all children aged 0–14:

  • almost 3 in 4 (71%) lived in Major cities in 2018 (ABS 2019d)
  • just over 1 in 5 (21%) lived in the lowest socioeconomic areas in 2018 (AIHW 2019b)
  • in 2017, almost 1 in 11 (8.9%) had been born overseas (ABS 2018d)
  • in 2018, 5.9% were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ABS 2018b).

Health status

Burden of disease

The burden of disease is the quantified impact of a disease or injury on a population, which captures health loss, or years of healthy life lost through premature death or living with ill health (see Burden of disease). Infants (aged under 1) accounted for a smaller proportion of the total population than children aged 1–4, but contributed a greater proportion to the total burden of disease. The proportion of total burden was lower among those aged 1–4 than in any other age group. For infants and young children aged under 5, the leading causes of total burden of disease were mainly infant and heart conditions. Among children aged 5–14, asthma was the leading cause of burden and contributed to 14% and 12% of the total burden in boys and girls respectively (Figure 1).

Boys and girls also experienced substantial burden from mental and substance use disorders (Figure 1). Other leading causes of burden for children were dental caries, back pain and problems, epilepsy, and acne (AIHW 2019a).

 

The leading causes of burden for males aged 0–4 ranked from first to fifth were: preterm birth and low birthweight complications, birth trauma and asphyxia, sudden infant death syndrome, cardiovascular defects and asthma. For males aged 5–14, the leading causes from first to fifth were: asthma, anxiety disorders, conduct disorders, depressive disorders and autism spectrum disorders.

The leading causes of burden for females aged 0–4 ranked from first to fifth were: preterm birth and low birthweight complications, birth trauma and asphyxia, other disorders of infancy, sudden death syndrome and asthma. For females aged 5–14, the leading causes from first to fifth were: asthma, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, dental caries and conduct disorder. 

Mental health

Data on child and adolescent mental health are available from the Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (also known as the Young Minds Matter survey). In 2013–14, an estimated 14% of children and adolescents aged 4–11 experienced a mental disorder in the 12 months prior to the survey. Boys were more commonly affected than girls (17% compared with 11%) (Table 1) (Lawrence et al. 2015).

Table 1: Prevalence of mental disorders among 4–11 year olds, by sex, 2013–14

Disorder

Males (%)

Females (%)

Persons (%)

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

10.9

5.4

8.2

Anxiety disorders

7.6

6.1

6.9

Conduct disorder

2.5

1.6

2.0

Major depressive disorder

1.1

1.2

1.1

Any mental disorder(a)

16.5

10.6

13.6

(a) Totals are lower than the sum of disorders as children and adolescents may have had more than 1 class of mental disorder in the previous 12 months.

Source: Lawrence et al. 2017.

Overall, over 7 in 10 (72%) children with some form of disorder had mild disorders; almost 1 in 5 (20%) had moderate disorders; and 8.2% of children had severe disorders. Severe disorders were more common among boys (9.9%) than girls (5.6%) (Lawrence et al. 2015).

See Mental health.

Disability

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers, it was estimated that around 7.7% (or 357,000) of Australian children aged 0–14 had disability. More boys (9.6%) than girls (5.7%) were affected by disability. Around 1 in 20 (4.5%, or 211,000) children had a severe or profound core activity limitation and 5.2% (241,000) of children aged 5–14 had a schooling restriction. Schooling restrictions are determined based on whether a person needs help, has difficulty participating, or uses aids or equipment in their education. Boys aged 5–14 were more likely than girls to have a schooling restriction (9.9% of boys and 5.6% of girls, respectively) (ABS 2019c).

The prevalence of disability has remained relatively stable over time for children. Since 2003, there has been little change in the prevalence for children aged 0–4 (4.3% in 2003 compared with 3.7% in 2018) or children aged 5–14 (10% in 2003 compared with 9.6% in 2018) (ABS 2019c).

Chronic conditions

According to the ABS 2017–18 National Health Survey (NHS), it was estimated that 46% of boys and 39% of girls aged 0–14 had 1 or more chronic conditions (ABS 2018c). Chronic conditions, also known as long-term conditions or non-communicable diseases, refers to a wide range of conditions, illnesses and diseases that tend to be long- lasting with persistent effects. Chronic disease can interrupt a child’s normal development and can increase the risk of being developmentally vulnerable at school entry (Bell et al. 2016).

According to the 2017–18 NHS, the 2 leading chronic conditions for children aged 0–14 were diseases of the respiratory system: 10% of children experienced asthma, and 10% experienced hay fever and allergic rhinitis. The third and fourth most common chronic conditions related to mental and behavioural disorders, such as anxiety-related problems (5.7% of children) and problems of psychological development (5.7%). The fifth most common chronic condition for children aged 0–14 was food allergies (5.5%) (ABS 2018c).

Injuries

In 2017–18, there were around 65,000 hospitalised injury cases among children aged 0–14, a rate of 1,400 per 100,000 children. Of these cases, 64,800 had a cause of injury recorded. The leading causes of these injuries were:

  • falls (45%, or 29,300)
  • exposure to inanimate mechanical forces (such as being struck or cut by something other than another human or animal) (20%, or 13,100)
  • land transport accidents (9.5%, or 6,200) (Figure 2).

Overall, boys were 1.5 times as likely to sustain an injury that results in hospitalisation as girls (1,600 and 1,100 per 100,000 respectively). These differences varied by age—from 1.3 times for ages 0–4, to 1.7 times among 10–14 year olds.

See Injury.
 

The pie chart shows that falls and exposure to inanimate mechanical forces were the leading causes of hospitalised injury across all children.  

During 2016–2018, injuries contributed to 532 deaths of children aged 0–14, a rate of 3.8 per 100,000 children. The leading causes of injury deaths were: land transport accidents (29%) (including road traffic deaths), accidental drowning (18%) and intentional self-harm (12%).

Deaths

In 2018, there were 988 deaths of infants under the age of 1—a rate of 3.1 per 1,000 live births. Infant deaths comprised over two-thirds (71%) of all deaths among children aged 0–14.

The leading causes of infant deaths were:

  • perinatal conditions (52%)
  • congenital conditions (25%)
  • symptoms, signs and abnormal findings, including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (9.4%).

In 2018, there were 396 deaths of children aged 1–14, a rate of 9.0 per 100,000 children. Across 2016–18, the leading causes of child deaths were injuries (including accidental drowning) (33%), cancer (20%) and disease of the nervous system (10%).

Overall, the death rate for children aged 1–14 has fallen between 1998 and 2018. Since 2011, the death rate has remained relatively stable around 9 to 12 deaths per 100,000. Similarly, the infant death rate has fallen from 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1998 to 3.1 per 1,000 live births in 2018.

See Causes of death.

Health risk factors

Nutrition

Good nutrition is key to supporting children’s growth and development (NHMRC 2013).

In 2017–18, it was estimated that:

  • about 7 in 10 (72%) children aged 5–14 met the recommended guidelines for fruit consumption
  • only 1 in 25 (4.4%) children aged 5–14 met the recommended guidelines for vegetable consumption (ABS 2019c).

Almost half (45%) of children aged 5–14 consumed either sugar-sweetened drinks or diet drinks at least once a week. The proportion was higher for children aged 10–14 (53%) than children aged 5–9 (33%) (ABS 2019c). 

See Diet.

Physical activity

In addition to good nutrition, participating in physical activity and limiting sedentary behaviour is critical to a child’s health, development and psychosocial wellbeing.

In 2011–12, it was estimated that:

  • less than one-quarter (23%) of children aged 5–14 undertook the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day
  • less than one-third (32%) met the screen-based activity guidelines
  • only 1 in 10 (10%) children met both sets of guidelines each day (ABS 2013).

On average, children aged 5–14 spent around 2 hours (123 minutes) each day sitting or lying down for screen-based activities, with only 3.5 minutes of this being for homework. Children aged 10–14 spent more time in front of screens (145 minutes) on average in a day than children aged 5–9 (102 minutes) (ABS 2013).

See Insufficient physical activity.

Overweight and obesity

In 2017–18, while the majority of children aged 5–14 (67% or just over 1 million) were a normal weight, an estimated 746,000 or 24% of children were overweight or obese. Almost 8% of all children were obese. The proportions of overweight and obesity were similar for boys and girls across age groups. The prevalence of overweight and obesity among children aged 5–14 remained relatively stable between 2007–08 and 2017–18 (ABS 2019c).

For further detail of how overweight and obesity is defined and measured, see Overweight and obesity.

Health care

Immunisation

Measuring childhood immunisation coverage helps track how protected the community is against vaccine-preventable diseases, and reflects the capacity of the health care system to effectively target and provide vaccinations to children.

In 2018, more than 9 in 10 (91%) children aged 2 were fully immunised. Coverage rates for 2 year olds are slightly lower than for 1 year olds (94%) and 5 year olds (95%) due to changes to the National Immunisation Program Schedule in 2016 (Department of Health 2019).

The proportion of children fully immunised at 2 years old remained relatively stable at around 91–93% between 2009 and 2018, dropping slightly to 89% in 2015 and 90% in 2017 (Department of Health 2019).

See Immunisation and vaccination.

Emergency department presentations

In 2018–19, children aged 0–14 accounted for more than 1 in 5 (21%) emergency department presentations. Boys aged 0–14 accounted for almost one-quarter (24%) of emergency department presentations by males. Girls aged 0–14 accounted for 19% of all emergency department presentations by females (AIHW 2019d).

Where do I go for more information?

For more information on the health of children, see:

Visit Children & youth for more on this topic.

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2013. Microdata: Australian Health Survey: nutrition and physical activity, 2011–12, TableBuilder. Findings based on AIHW analysis of ABS TableBuilder data. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018b. Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2016. ABS cat. no. 3238.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018c. National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018d. Population projections, Australia, 2017 (base)–2066. ABS cat. no. 3222.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2018a. Regional population by age and sex, Australia, 2017. ABS cat. no. 3235.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019a. Australian demographic statistics, Jun 2019. ABS cat. no. 3101.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019b. Disability, ageing and carers, Australia: summary of findings, 2018. ABS cat. no. 4430.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019c. Microdata: National Health Survey 2017–18. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Findings based on AIHW analysis using TableBuilder.

ABS 2019d. Regional population by age and sex, Australia, 2018. ABS cat. no. 3235.0. Canberra: ABS.

AHMAC (Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council) 2015. Healthy, safe and thriving: national strategic framework for child and youth health. Adelaide: AHMAC. Viewed 24 September 2019.

AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2019a. Australian Burden of Disease Study: impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2015. Australian Burden of Disease series no. 19. Cat. no. BOD 22. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019b. Australia’s children. Cat. no. CWS 69. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019c. Australia’s mothers and babies 2017—in brief. Perinatal statistics series no. 34. Cat. no. PER 100. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW 2019d. Emergency department care 2018–19. Cat. No. HSE 223. Canberra: AIHW.

Bell MF, Bayliss DM, Glauert R & Ohan JL 2016. Chronic illness and developmental vulnerability at school entry. Pediatrics 137(5).

Department of Health 2019. Current coverage data tables for all children. Canberra: Department of Health. Viewed 25 July 2019.

Lawrence D, Johnson S, Hafekost J, Boterhoven De Haan K, Sawyer M, Ainley J & Zubrock SR 2015. The mental health of children and adolescents. Report on the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing. Canberra: Department of Health. Viewed 17 May 2019.

NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) 2013. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.

Redmond G, Skattebol J, Saunders P, Lietz P, Zizzo f, O’Grady E et al. 2016. Are the kids alright? Young Australians in their middle years: final report of the Australian Child Wellbeing Project. Flinders University, University of New South Wales and Australian Council for educational Research. Viewed 24 September 2019.