Meeting the health needs of children with learning disabilities: the role of the learning disability nurse

Morgan Lewis, World Down Syndrome Day

The right to health is reflected in Article 23:1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989): ‘A mentally and physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community’. All children have the right to a good and meaningful life (NHS England, 2018), there are approximately 193, 707 children of school age in the UK who have a learning disability (Mencap, no date).

Not all children and young people with a learning disability will require involvement of a learning disability nurse however, for some children and young people the role of the learning disability nurse is vital in ensuring that needs are met, and that aspiration and achievement occurs. While it is always important that services are delivered based on the premise that children are ‘children first’, there are other areas which deliver specific learning disability services, often within child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). Nurses have been described by the Royal College of Psychiatrists as the backbone to the community team in supporting children, young people and their families (RCPSYCH, 2016) and are essential in breaking down the barriers to health care which persist.

Being as healthy as possible is something that the learning disability nurse can support children, young people and their families with. This ability to effectively educate and support children and young people with learning disabilities to develop a healthy outlook has lifelong implications. We know that adults with learning disabilities are at increased risk of diabetes, being obese, along with other risk factors associated with poor oral health, respiratory conditions and complications of constipation (Emerson & Baines, 2010) among other concerns.

Health promoting activities, such as education and awareness of nutrition, hydration and diet, exercise, sex education, relationships, mental health and well-being, use of medication, increasing personal safety and anxiety management are just some of the appropriate and relevant activities that learning disability nurses can deliver on an individual or group basis. Early intervention and initiatives which target children and young people in developing skills to be as healthy as possible to decrease the likelihood of dying early from preventable conditions (see Ruth Northway’s blog for further discussion on this).

The ability to recognise the holistic and unique needs of the child is integrated fully into pre-registration learning disability nurse training. Working together with the child with learning disabilities and their supporters is an essential element of the role of the learning disability nurse and improvements in health and outcomes for children with learning disabilities can only be achieved by effective trans-disciplinary working.

In understanding the needs of the child, young person and their family and working together with them alongside a range of other health professionals including psychology, psychiatry, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, art psychotherapy, autism assessment co-ordinators and primary mental health workers we can aspire to promote health and wellbeing from a holistic approach.

Paula Hopes, RNLD


If you are interested in a career in learning disability nursing then places are available at USW for a September 2018 start. NHS Bursary available.

Thanks to Amanda Lewis for allowing us to use a picture of her son, Morgan.