Nutrition has been called the single greatest environmental influence on babies in the womb and during infancy and it remains essential throughout the first years of life.
A proper balance of nutrients in this formative period is critical for normal brain development. Shortages of nutrients such as iron and iodine can impair cognitive and motor development, and these effects are often irreversible. Similarly, there is growing evidence that DHA, an essential fatty acid, is a key component of the intensive production of synapses that makes the first years of life a critical period of learning and development. Many other nutrients-folic acid, and zinc, to name just a few-have been linked specifically to early brain functioning.
The role of nutrition in brain development is complex. The effects of most nutrient shortages depend on the extent and duration of the shortage, and in many cases, the brain’s need for a particular nutrient changes throughout its development. Early shortages can reduce cell production later shortages can affect cell size and complexity. Nutrient deficits also affect the complex chemical processes of the brain and can lead to less efficient communication between brain cells.
Following is a list of essential nutrients that your child requires for proper brain development.
Protein: Protein is crucial for the growth of brain cells during development. According to doctors, a young child needs about 11 grams of protein per day. Protein is most concentrated in animal products like meat, milk, and eggs. Concentrated vegetable sources of protein include soy, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Fats: The brain is 70% fat. Some fats are essential for proper brain function. Fats especially important to the brain are the omega-3 fatty acids. Food rich in these fats include fish such as salmon, herring and sardines.
Iron: Iron is critical for brain and nervous system development. Iron deficiency anaemia in early life is related to altered behavioural and neural development. It is an important component of red blood cells that are responsible for carrying oxygen to the brain. Iron is the mineral most often deficient in the diet of babies and toddlers. In general, your child should eat at least two iron rich foods each day. Foods which are naturally high in iron include dark leafy greens such as spinach, collard greens, parsley and watercress, raisins, dried apricots and egg yolks.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A is necessary for vision. While not technically part of the brain, it is considered part of the nervous system. Vision, especially night vision, depends on proper amounts of vitamin A. Excellent sources of vitamin A include sweet potatoes, winter squash, carrots, apricots, spinach, and fortified dairy products.
B Vitamins: B vitamins are found in many different foods, including grains, meats, dried beans, and fortified cereals and snacks. These vitamins play numerous roles from supporting proper vision, unlocking the energy in carbohydrates, and supporting the protective myelin sheath around brain cells.
A child's nourishment during the first years of life can affect the ability to learn, communicate, socialise and adapt to new environments and people. Making sure your child gets those particular nutrients needed during the first years of life will help to ensure the brain grows and develops optimally. Otherwise, your child will become prone to a host of brain developmental problems including learning disability or slow learning.
Slow learning hampers a child’s ability to learn necessary academic skills. He/she often finds procuring education at school difficult. An under-nourished child’s learning ability and depth of understanding is below average when compared to their peers. In order to grasp new concepts, a slow learner needs more time, a number of repetitions, patience and often more resources from teachers to be successful. In children with this condition, reasoning skills are typically delayed, which makes new concepts difficult to learn and grasp.
It is important to understand that slow learners do not need special education because more often than not, there is no evidence of them having a medical problem. They simply do not do well in school or a particular project. They sometime appear immature in interpersonal relationships, might find maintaining friendships very difficult and often times do not understand simple skills like taking turns while performing a task. Hence, it is the duty of both parents and teachers to identify the child’s interests and activities he/she likes and encourage them to take part in them, whether at school or home, and reward them when it is done well.
Lack of proper food and breastfeeding during a child’s first years threatens brain development. Children, when under-nourished are likely to have unhealthy diets and inconsistent eating habits, placing them at risk for cognitive impairment, obesity, and other long-term problems.