Adequate nutrition is very important for brain development especially during pregnancy and infancy, which are the most important periods for the formation of brain and the foundation of cognitive, motor and socio-emotional skills throughout childhood and adulthood. Nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy and infancy could affect cognition, behaviour and productivity throughout the school years and adulthood, therefore the prevention of nutritional deficiencies may have a long-term benefit for our children.
What are the biological mechanisms which affect brain development?
Babies’ brain and spinal cord is developed from neural tube, which requires adequate nutrition from the beginning such as enough folic acid, copper and vitamin D. Neurons and nerve cells start to develop at around seven weeks after conception when cell division begins in the neural tube. After neurons are created, they migrate to its place in the brain where make connections with other cells. These neurodevelopmental processes begin during gestation and continue throughout infancy.
Long-term consequences of poor nutrition in early life
Many studies which compared school-age children who had been malnourished in the first few years of life with their siblings who had not. It has been shown that those which were malnourished had lower IQ levels, cognitive function, school achievement and greater behavioural problems.
How to avoid malnutrition during pregnancy?
It is very important to eat a healthy, balanced and varied diet during pregnancy. Meals should be based on starchy foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Moderate amounts of beans, pulses, fish, eggs, lean meat and other proteins together with moderate amounts of dairy products should be part of the diet as well. Foods and drinks high in sugar and fat should be limited.
In addition to a healthy diet, there are some important supplements that should be taken as well.
- Folic acid is recommended prior to conception and up to 12 weeks of pregnancy to lower the risk of neural tube defects.
- Vitamin D is also very important for the growth and development of the baby’s bones. Vitamin D can be found in oily fish or eggs.
- Iron requirements are higher in pregnancy because your body needs extra iron to ensure that baby has a sufficient blood supply and receives enough oxygen and nutrients.
- Omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel are important for the development of baby’s brain and eyes. However, pregnant women should only eat up to 2 portions of oily fish per week.
Macronutrients and micronutrients that affect early (0-3 years old) brain development:
- Protein intake affects brain development in early life. It has been shown that protein restriction results in smaller brains with reduced RNA and DNA contents, fewer neurons and reduced concentrations of neurotransmitters and growth factors.
- Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in oily fish, nuts, seeds), are associated with improved cognition and attention.
- Iron, zinc and iodine are necessary for normal anatomic development of brain
To ensure a good development of your baby’s brain and cognitive function it is very important to follow and adequate nutrition during pregnancy and infancy.