Your food choices during pregnancy and your child’s diet in early life significantly influence the development of their brain throughout childhood, teenage years and even adulthood.
Providing the best nutrition for the brain early on can have lifelong benefits. In this article, you’ll learn about some of the nutrients needed to ensure your baby’s brain is as healthy as it can be.
Both your environment and your dietary and lifestyle choices will affect your baby’s brain health and development. Her brain starts developing around three weeks after conception and a brain needs good nutrition from day one.
The first one thousand days are now known to be crucial in terms of physical, cognitive, social, emotional and behavioural development, and how your baby’s brain grows in this period will define how their brain works over their lifetime.
Your brain has over 100 billion nerve cells known as neurones. These start forming around six weeks after conception.
Your baby is born with all the brain cells they’ll ever need, but the connections between them must be formed over time. These connections between nerve cells allow your baby to sense their world, to learn, remember and plan, and they also play a role in attention, processing speed, mood and the control of impulses.
Connections between nerve cells are called synapses, and they carry signals enabling brain cells to communicate with each other. Each neurone has thousands of synaptic connections with other neurones, like a vast telephone network.
Over time, synapses are refined, with some strengthened and others destroyed if they’re not used. This is known as brain plasticity. Some of this process depends on experience and environment, meaning your surroundings really do hardwire your brain in later life.
By the time a child is three years old, it’s estimated their brain will have formed around 1,000 trillion connections. Nutrition plays a large role in making these connections.
Plenty of protein is needed to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals used by brain cells to communicate with one another. Eating too little protein can lead to smaller brains with fewer neurones, synapses which don’t develop properly and not enough neurotransmitters.
Good sources of protein include poultry, oily fish, eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds.
Brain cells are surrounded by a fatty membrane, and it makes sense to ensure the correct type of fats are included in this membrane. Omega 3 fats help keep the membrane fluid and in turn, this helps brain cells communicate. Over 60% of the brain is made up of fat, with omega 3 comprising up to 20% of the total fat. Breast milk contains these fats, a big clue they’re crucial to the brain.
Studies have shown when women took supplemental omega 3 fats during pregnancy, their infants developed better cognition, more focussed attention and improved mental health when compared with infants from mothers who didn’t take the omega 3 supplements. It’s believed supplementation may even influence brain health several years later.
Find omega 3 fats in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and pilchards. Tuna is best avoided, especially in pregnancy as it’s high up in the food chain so can accumulate toxins and heavy metals like mercury from its surroundings. Vegan sources include flax seeds, flax seed oil, chia seeds and walnuts.
Over 50 studies confirm the importance of iron in brain development, linking iron supplementation with better cognitive and motor skills. Iron seems to be particularly important for brain development before age two.
Find it in red meat, beans, lentils and green leafy vegetables.
This mineral is important for the growth and development of nerves, formation of their protective coating, regulation of neurotransmitters, and creation of synapses. Zinc deficiencies have been linked with learning difficulties and poor attention, memory and mood.
Zinc is high in red meat, seeds especially pumpkin seeds and legumes.
Many other nutrients play a role in brain development, including iodine, vitamin A, D and the B vitamins. The brain thrives on a diverse diet with a broad range of nutrients.
Factors such as stress, environmental toxins and certain foods can harm the developing brain. One culprit is sugar – eating a diet high in sugar can cause insulin resistance and with it high glucose levels in the blood, negatively affecting on young brain development.
Some nutrients are important at specific times in your child’s development, so timing is everything. This means the support of a therapist can be really useful to advise you about the best brain supportive nutritional and lifestyle strategies, personalised to you and your child. Contact me to find out more about supporting your baby’s brain development.
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