Nutritional Support for Baby Brain Development
Good nutrition is important in all stages of life, but each stage may require varying types and amounts of nutrients to support growth, development and maintenance of health. Infants and young children, for example, undergo a rapid stage of physical growth and mental development during the early years of life, and certain nutrients may be necessary to support these changes.
Physical and Mental Development in Infants
Infancy (birth to one year) is a time of rapid growth and development. Parents usually notice that there is something new with their baby every day. At birth, a baby may spend most of her time sleeping, but as the days go by, she becomes more active and demanding, not only for food, but also for attention. Doctors usually inform parents about developmental milestones, or things babies usually do by a certain age, including the way they interact with their parents and the environment, the way they play, talk, learn, and behave. During the first few weeks, they are able to focus their vision and learn to interact by smiling and cooing at their caregiver or parents. As their brains develop, they are able to do more things. They begin to explore the environments by using their hands to reach for things, and their legs to crawl and walk. From making simple one-syllable sounds, they learn to listen, mimic, and understand language. Cognitive functions such as memory, reasoning, and thinking rapidly develop, and they are able to recognize faces, names, and sounds. It is also during this stage that babies develop bonds of trust and love towards their parents as part of their emotional and social development. To support the rapid development of the body and brain, nutrition is important.
Most health experts advise mothers to breastfeed their infants, especially during the first six months of life. While breast milk is all that babies need during this time, some believe that they may also need vitamin D supplements, especially if they do not get enough exposure to sunlight. Breast milk is considered to be a complete type of food for infants, since it provides them with the nutrients and immune factors to support early growth, development and protection, but certain conditions, such as living in high altitudes, may increase their requirements for vitamins D (400 IU per day). Vitamin D, also called the sunshine vitamin, is necessary for bone growth, and supplementation helps prevent weak bones in children (a condition called rickets).
After six months, babies may be ready to try other foods, such as bananas and cereals, but breast milk is still an important part of his nutrition. Babies who are switched to milk formula that is fortified with vitamin D may not need supplements. In addition, mothers must also make sure that babies receive iron, especially after 6 months, when they increase their need for this nutrient to support physical growth and mental development.
Infants normally double their birth weights by the time they reach six months and triple it on their first birthday. Since their caloric consumption is not the same as that of older children or adults, they need to eat more fat, which supplies more calories that protein or carbohydrates. Essential fatty acids from breast milk, cow milk or infant formula contain fats and cholesterol, which support healthy brain development. Breast milk is an important source of dietary fats, especially the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It also contains short-chain fatty acids, the building blocks for long-chain fatty acids that are important for brain development.
Brain development occurs most rapidly during the last three months of pregnancy and the first two years of life.The growth of nerve cells in the brain and the rest of the nervous system, which undergoes continuous reconstruction, is influenced by the composition of the diet. Studies show that there is a strong link between the consumption of omega-3 oils, particularly DHA, and visual acuity, cognitive function, and brain development. A child’s brain development, therefore, depends highly on dietary intake of these essential nutrients. Furthermore, the mother’s diet plays an important role in the baby’s growth and development, both during its life in the womb and during its breastfeeding days.
Studies indicate that DHA levels decline after the sixth month of life due to the low content found in baby formulas and baby foods. Studies also show that even in breastfed babies, DHA levels tend to decrease. However, with DHA supplementation, levels rise by more than 30 percent. Evidence shows that higher DHA levels are linked to better visual and brain function. In one study, evaluation of exclusively-bottle-fed infants with no DHA supplementation revealed that abnormalities in visual, auditory, and sensory perception occurred at the age of one year. Another study also showed that infants born with neurological abnormalities had significantly lower levels of DHA and arachidonic acid, and and higher levels of trans fats. In contrast, babies with higher essential fatty acid, DHA and arachidonic acid levels had better neurological function.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers breastfeed their infants for the first six months. It also supports breastfeeding even beyond the first year, although some experts believe that infant formula products that mimic breast milk may also be used. Solid foods may be introduced between the fourth to sixth months of life, depending on the baby’s readiness to eat.
This information should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your health care providers (doctor, registered dietitian, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.
CDC. Vitamins D Supplementation.
WebMD. Diet and Nutrition Through the Years: From Birth to Seniority.
Medpage Today. AAP: DHA Important in Infant Brain Development.
LEF. DHA Supports Brain Development and Protects Neurological Function.
AJCN. Can nutrient supplements modify brain function?