Nutrition for optimal brain development- Babies and Toddlers
A baby’s brain will double its size by their first birthday and continues to develop rapidly during the first few years of life. This period of rapid development means the right foods are essential for proper brain growth. One of the essential substances required by the brain to develop normally is DHA- an omega-3 essential fatty acid that the body does not manufacture and so it must come from food. DHA is important for mental performance and for development of the nervous system.
For breastfed babies, DHA is a key ingredient in breast milk. Mothers who breastfeed can boost the DHA content of their breast milk by taking a DHA supplement themselves. For formula fed babies, companies often add DHA to their formulas although the fats are extracted from algae and fungal sources and processed using a toxic chemical. This can lead to health complications. A better alternative would be to buy formula without the added DHA and add the DHA yourself.
Supplementing a baby’s diet is recommended once a baby begins to rely more on solid foods rather than breast milk for their main source of nutrition, usually around 8-9 months of age. 100-200mg of DHA is a good starting point. When selecting a fish oil supplement, use a brand you trust and ensure the product is free from contaminants such as heavy metals.
Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, and trout are one of the best food sources of DHA. Mixed seeds or cold-pressed seed oils provide a good balance of essential fats from a vegan source. Flax seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are all great options. It is important to buy fresh seeds that have been properly stored as they are susceptible to damage. They should be kept away from heat and stored in a light-proof container. Eating fish a few times a week and including seeds on a daily basis can ensure babies are getting a good level of healthy fats without resorting to supplementation.
Another important nutrient that is often overlooked is zinc. Zinc is a trace mineral that is needed for many important functions in the body, including brain function. A study in the Journal of Nutrition, showed that children who are deficient in zinc have lower cognitive and motor function. Some of the best food sources of zinc are pumpkin seeds, wheat germ, lentils, shellfish and nuts (only if there is no allergy concern).
Babies and young children can often be picky eaters. Paying close attention to their diet and supplementing as required at this critical point of development is the most reliable way to ensure they are getting all the required nutrients needed to be optimally nourished.
Holford, Patrick, & Lawson Susannah, Optimum Nutrition Before, During and After Pregnancy, Piatkus Books: Great Britain, 2014
The Mount Sinai Hospital / Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "Baby formula: Inflammatory food toxins found in high levels in infants." ScienceDaily, 6 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111005170730.htm>.
Sanstead HH, Frederickson CJ, Penland JG. Zinc nutriture as related to brain. J. Nutr. 2000;130:140S–146S.
Photo: Baby Foodie