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Protecting children from neglect

Last updated: 12 Jul 2024

Neglect is not meeting a child’s basic physical and psychological needs (Department for Education, 2023; Department of Health, 2017; Scottish Government, 2023; Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board, 2020).

It is a form of child abuse that can have serious and long-lasting impacts on a child’s life - it can cause serious harm and even death.

The four main types of neglect are:

  • physical neglect: not meeting a child’s basic needs, such as food, clothing or shelter; not supervising a child adequately or providing for their safety
  • educational neglect: not making sure a child receives an education
  • emotional neglect: not meeting a child’s needs for nurture and stimulation, for example by ignoring, humiliating, intimidating or isolating them
  • medical neglect: not providing appropriate health care (including dental care), refusing care or ignoring medical recommendations (Horwath, 2007).

Neglect can happen at any age, sometimes even before a child is born. If a mother has mental health problems or misuses substances during pregnancy, for example, she may neglect her own health and this can damage a baby’s development in the womb (Haynes et al, 2015).

> Find out more about parental substance misuse

> Find out more about parental mental health problems



Impact of child neglect

"I am at home on my own a lot. Things are difficult at home and mum is really struggling - she gets stressed and angry a lot. I have to do a lot of the house work and help with chores. I feel lonely and have not got anyone to talk to."

Childline counselling session with a girl aged 10

Children can experience neglect at any age – from pre-birth to adolescence. Neglect can cause a range of short- and long-term effects which may vary depending on the age of the child.

Brain development

Brain development starts at conception and continues throughout a child’s life. The early years are a time of rapid development (Department for Health and Social Care, 2021). How the brain grows and develops depends, at least in part, on how it is used (Burton and Reid, 2018).

If a child has little interaction with their caregiver, it can change how emotional and verbal pathways develop and impact their ability to learn. If a baby is malnourished, neural cells can become weak or damaged, and this can cause lowered brain function. This may have consequences for brain functioning in later life.

> Read more about how neglect can impact child brain development and how you can encourage healthy brain growth

> Sign up for our training course on understanding child brain development and the impact of trauma

Physical health and development

Neglect can be particularly damaging to a child’s physical development in the first years of their life (Department for Education, (DfE), 2014).

A baby’s development in the womb can be negatively impacted if their parent neglects their own health during pregnancy, such as through problem substance use (DfE, 2023).

> Find out more about the impact of problem substance use

Parents and carers also need to help young children to develop gross motor skills. If they are being neglected, or if parents don’t know how to stimulate their child, this process may not happen effectively and the child’s development may be delayed (Horwath, 2013).

A child’s health can also be neglected if they aren’t given enough of the right nutritious food. They can immediately experience hunger and discomfort and may have trouble concentrating.

Longer-term malnourishment will also affect their physical health and development. Having an unhealthy diet can also lead to obesity-related health problems.

Poor health, dental decay and in some circumstances, death can occur if a child doesn’t receive appropriate medical care.

Mental health

Children who have experienced neglect are more likely to experience mental health problems, including:

  • depression
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • dissociative disorders
  • memory impairments
  • panic disorder

(Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015).

Relationships and attachment

Children who don’t get the love and care they need may develop problems with attachment. They may struggle with forming attachments or may not develop a secure attachment style. This can lead to a child becoming isolated and affect their ability to maintain healthy relationships with others later in life (including their own children).

> Find out more about child attachment and how to support parents and carers in building positive relationships with their children


Experiencing neglect can impact children’s and young people’s behaviour.

Children who are neglected might be exposed to more risks, have a lack of supervision and guidance and develop low self-esteem.

These factors can all contribute to changes in behaviour, such as:

  • running away from home
  • breaking the law
  • abusing drugs or alcohol
  • becoming involved in unhealthy or abusive relationships.


If children and young people aren’t being supervised appropriately by their parents and carers they may have accidents which can cause injury, illness, disfigurement, disability or even death.



Recognising child neglect

Signs and indicators

There’s often no single indicator that a child is being neglected. You may notice more than one sign and your concerns might become more frequent if problems are mounting up. This could indicate that a child and their family need support.

Children of all ages who are neglected may:

  • live in an unsuitable home environment, for example in a house that isn’t heated throughout winter
  • have a lack of, or inappropriate, stimulation, activities or toys
  • not have enough sleep or a sleep routine
  • be left alone for a long time
  • struggle with personal hygiene and washing
  • struggle with poor oral and dental health
  • wear clothing that hasn’t been washed or is inadequate (for example, not having a winter coat)
  • seem particularly hungry, seem not to have eaten breakfast or have no packed lunch or lunch money
  • not be brought to medical appointments such as vaccinations or check-ups
  • not be given the prescribed medication, treatment or adaptions needed for a diagnosed illness, disability or condition.

They may suffer from poor health, including:

  • untreated injuries
  • medical and dental issues
  • repeated accidental injuries due to lack of supervision
  • untreated or recurring illnesses or infections 
  • long term or recurring skin sores, rashes, flea bites, scabies or ringworm
  • anaemia.

Signs in babies and young children

Babies and very young children are more likely to experience severe harm from neglect due to their vulnerability (Department for Education, (DfE), 2014).

It can be difficult to identify neglect in very young children, which can lead to a delay in recognition and intervention (Naughton, 2013).

Signs that babies and very young children may be experiencing neglect include:

  • interacting with their caregiver in a passive, withdrawn, angry or avoidant way
  • not seeking comfort from their caregivers
  • becoming angry when performing problem-solving tasks
  • having poor working memory abilities
  • having frequent and untreated nappy rash
  • failing to thrive (not reaching developmental milestones or not growing at an appropriate rate for their age)

(Cardiff University, 2022; Demeusy, 2018; DfE, 2014; Naughton, 2013).

If developmental delay is suspected, it is important to have a formal development assessment carried out by a specially qualified professional.

Signs in older children

Neglect can have an ongoing effect on children’s development and can cause changes in behaviour. You may notice or become aware that a child:

  • has poor language, communication or social skills
  • withdraws suddenly or seems depressed
  • appears anxious
  • wants to be constantly close to their caregiver or trusted adult
  • is aggressive
  • displays obsessive behaviour
  • shows signs of self-harm
  • is particularly tired
  • has changes in eating habits
  • finds it hard to concentrate or participate in activities
  • misses school 
  • starts using drugs or alcohol.

Risk and vulnerability factors

Any child can suffer neglect, but research shows that some children are more vulnerable including those who:

  • have a disability
  • are born prematurely or with a low birth weight
  • have complex health needs
  • are care experienced
  • are experiencing poverty (DfE 2014).

> Find out more about children in care

> Find out more about safeguarding d/Deaf children and children who have disabilities

All families come under pressure from time to time. Although many parents are able to provide loving care for their children during difficult periods, increased or continued stress can affect how well a parent can look after their child.

Research shows that parents with a low income, or who are living in more deprived neighbourhoods, are more likely to feel chronically stressed than other parents (Jütte et al, 2014); and parents who are facing complex problems such as domestic abuse or substance misuse can struggle to meet their children’s needs (Haynes et al, 2015).

If parents are feeling particularly isolated, this can make it harder for them to ask for help and increases the risk of child abuse or neglect (Jütte et al, 2014).



Responding to child neglect


If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisational child protection procedures. Organisations that work with children and families must have safeguarding policies and procedures in place.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing Our child protection specialists will talk through your concerns with you and give you expert advice. 
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in. 
  • Contact the police.

Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> See our information about recognising and responding to abuse

If your organisation doesn't have a clear safeguarding procedure or you're concerned about how child protection issues are being handled in your own, or another, organisation, contact the Whistleblowing Advice Line to discuss your concerns.

> Find out about the Whistleblowing Advice Line on the NSPCC website

When you're not sure

The NSPCC Helpline can help when you're not sure if a situation needs a safeguarding response. Our child protection specialists are here to support you whether you're seeking advice, sharing concerns about a child, or looking for reassurance.

Whatever the need, reason or feeling, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing

Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you. Depending on what you share, our experts will talk you through which local services can help, advise you on next steps, or make referrals to children's services and the police.

> Find out more about how the NSPCC Helpline can support you

Recording concerns

Neglect is a long-term pattern of behaviour. Adults who are concerned that a child’s needs are not being met should record individual incidents to build up an overview of the child’s lived experience. These records should be shared with other agencies as appropriate and used to decide what support a child and their family need.

Assessing neglect

Assessment tools can help practitioners get a clear picture of how well parents are able to look after their children. This helps professionals make timely evidence-based decisions to improve the child’s quality of life.

The NSPCC uses assessment tools in our work with families where neglect may be taking place.

Graded Care Profile 2 (GCP2) helps professionals measure the quality of care a child is receiving. We’ve evaluated GCP2 and found that it’s successful in helping to identify neglect. We’re now supporting other organisations to deliver GCP2 in local areas. 

> Find out more about how to deliver Graded Care Profile 2 (GCP2)

Infant and Family Teams helps social workers and judges decide whether a child should stay with their birth family or enter care permanently.

> Find out more about Infant and Family Teams



Preventing child neglect

By identifying circumstances that put parents and carers under stress and getting them the right help at the right time, people who work with children can protect them from possible neglect.

Protective factors that can reduce the risks to children’s wellbeing include:

  • a strong social support network for the family
  • income support, benefits and advice
  • good community services and facilities (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).

Early preventative support

Practitioners have a key role to play in providing early support, before a problem escalates, and empowering parents and carers to look after their families. This includes:

  • developing long-term positive relationships with parents and carers
  • encouraging parents and carers to seek help when problems first emerge
  • talking to a child and their parents or carers to understand what support they need
  • sharing information about a child and their family with relevant agencies
  • identifying which services are best placed to help a family 
  • monitoring a child’s situation
  • providing direct practical and emotional support to a child and their parents or carers
  • signposting families to other specialist services where necessary. Successful early intervention can improve the attachment bond a child has with their caregivers, reduce harm and help children form positive relationships in adulthood (Howe, 2011).

NSPCC Services

NSPCC services that support parents to provide safe and loving care for their families include:

  • Domestic Abuse, Recovering Together (DART) - helps children and their mothers talk to each other about domestic abuse, learn to communicate and rebuild their relationship. We're also supporting other organisations to deliver DART in local areas.
  • Pregnancy in Mind - designed to support parents who are at risk of, or are experiencing, mild to moderate anxiety and depression during their pregnancy
  • Together for Childhood - an innovative, evidence-informed approach to bring local partners and families together to make our communities safer for children.

> Find out more about our services for children and families

We are also working with communities and local authorities across the UK to provide tailored support to professionals, children and families to help prevent neglect.

> Find out more about how we can help you develop a campaign in your area

Giving children a voice

It’s vital to build safe and trusting relationships with children so they can communicate about any problems they are experiencing. This involves teaching children what neglect is and how they can get help.

Our Speak out Stay safe service for schools teaches children how to recognise abuse and neglect in all its forms and empowers them to speak out if they are worried about anything.

> Find out more about Speak out Stay safe

Legislation and guidance

Legislation and guidance

Statutory guidance across the UK highlights the responsibility of those in the education, community and care sectors to safeguard children from all forms of abuse and neglect.

See also Key guidance for schools in the UK

Prevention strategy

The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) has developed a Multi-Agency Neglect Strategy for 2018-2022. This aims to help agencies in Northern Ireland who are involved with children, young people and parents to take actions to prevent, reduce and manage effects of neglect on children and families (SBNI, 2018).

Cruelty and neglect

Legislation across the UK makes it an offence to neglect children and young people under the age of 16.

In England and Wales the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 specifies when someone can be prosecuted for child cruelty or neglect.

In Northern Ireland this is covered by the Children and Young Persons Act (Northern Ireland) 1968.

In Scotland it is Part II of the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937.

In all parts of the UK, a person over 16 could be prosecuted for child cruelty if they:

  • ill-treat a child
  • neglect a child
  • abandon a child
  • expose or cause a child to be ill-treated, neglected or abandoned
  • expose a child in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to physical or mental health.

Prosecution guidance

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has guidance for prosecuting non-sexual child abuse offences in England and Wales (CPS, 2020). This guidance defines a child or young person as anyone aged under 18. This states that the four generally accepted categories of child cruelty are assault and ill-treatment, failure to protect, neglect and abandonment.

Guidance for medical professionals

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) has published guidance on the delivery of child protection medical assessments. The guidance for all UK nations sets out 13 standards to promote equitable, high-standard medical assessments where there are concerns about physical abuse and neglect (RCPCH, 2020).

Keep up-to-date with new legislation and guidance by signing up to CASPAR, our current awareness service for policy, practice and research

References and resources

References and resources

Burton, S. and Reid, J (2018) Safeguarding and protecting children in the early years. Oxford: Routledge.

Child Welfare Information Gateway (2015) Understanding the effects of maltreatment on brain development (PDF). Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Cleaver, H., Unell, I. and Aldgate, J. (2011) Children's needs: parenting capacity: child abuse: parental mental illness, learning disability, substance misuse, and domestic violence. 2nd ed. (PDF). London: The Stationery Office.

Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) (2020) Child abuse (non-sexual) – prosecution guidance. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Demeusy, E, et al. (2018) Early neglect and the development of aggression in toddlerhood: the role of working memory. Child Maltreatment, 23(4): 344-354.

Department for Education (DfE) (2014) Missed opportunities: indicators of neglect: what is ignored, why, and what can be done? (PDF). London: Department for Education.

Department for Education (DfE) (2023) Working together to safeguard children 2023: a guide to multi-agency working to help, protect and promote the welfare of children. 07/05/2024].

Department of Health (2017) Co-operating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland. [Accessed 10/09/2021].

Department of Health and Social Care (2021) The best start for life: a vision for the 1,001 critical days (PDF). London: Department of Health and Social Care.

Haynes, A., et al (2015) Thriving communities: a framework for preventing and intervening early in child neglect. London: NSPCC.

Horwath, J. (2007) Child neglect: identification and assessment. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Horwath, J. (2013) Child neglect: planning and intervention. London: Palgrave.

Howe, D. (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jütte, S., et al (2014) How safe are our children? 2014. London: NSPCC.

Leeds City Council (n.d.) One minute guide: neglect. [Accessed 13/05/2024].

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) (2020) Child Protection service delivery standards. [Accessed 10/09/2020].

Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) (2019) Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland’s multi-agency neglect strategy 2018-2022. Belfast: SBNI.

Scottish Government (2023) National guidance for child protection in Scotland - updated 2023. [Accessed 20/11/2023].

Wales Safeguarding Procedures Project Board (2020) Wales Safeguarding Procedures. [Accessed 10/09/2020].


Our elearning courses will help develop your understanding of how to protect children from neglect and other types of abuse: 

Support for children and young people

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online or read about neglect on the Childline website. You can also download or order Childline posters and wallet cards.

Related resources

Read our neglect: learning from case reviews thematic briefing summarising risk factors and learning for improved practice around neglect.

Further reading

For further reading about neglect, search the NSPCC Library catalogue using the keywords "child neglect", "emotional neglect" and "neglected children".

> Find out more about the Library and Information Service