How to optimise children’s brain development

Nutrition experts say docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is critical for brain growth in children because its consumption helps neurological and visual development, reports Associate Editor ADEKUNLE YUSUF

A casual conversation about best dietary practices later snowballed into a heated session. While waiting for their turn to get their babies immunised at the Federal Medical Center in Ebutte Meta, Lagos, six nursing mothers started comparing notes on their nutritional choices during and after their pregnancy months.

This grew into an argument. But by the time the dust had settled, it was apparent that only one of them could earn a pass mark in the subject.

Unlike her counterparts who admitted during the lengthy discussions that their dietary choices are often largely determined by impulse or whatever is available, Margaret Udem, a fairly educated mother of three, knows the importance of getting enough omega-3 fats, including docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, in her diet.

According to her, no day passes without including a healthy dose of this fatty acid in her diet – a habit of sorts. “I have known this fact since my childhood days that fatty acid is good for pregnant or lactating mothers,” she said.

However, that is where Udem’s knowledge about appropriate nutritional requirements ends. In a twist of irony, she too did not know that DHA is especially critical for brain growth in infants.

A woman of refreshing candour, she admitted that “it has never occurred to me that children too need DHA and nobody has told me it is also useful for children.”

Yet, nutrition experts say omega-3 fatty acid is a significant contributor to the brain development that takes place during the first two years of life – and beyond.

As parents marvel at how rapidly children grow and develop during the first months of life, it is usually a feeling of fulfillment seeing infants increasingly respond to sights and sounds, and become ever more curious about the world around them and ever more determined to explore it.

According to medical experts, behind those milestones and captivating moments of a child’s developmental progress, a vast neurological project is underway. Reason is that children’s brain grows more quickly during their first year than at any other time in their lives.

That is why it is important to know that Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, help to fuel that growth in children, experts explained. Dr. Oluwatosin Adu, chairman of the Lagos State chapter of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria (NSN), explained that DHA is a component of the brain cells.

“The more the DHA that is there, the better it is for the communication between the brain cells and transmission of information. The more of the DHA that is present in the brain, the better for brain development.

It helps in memory. It helps in coordination and all of those. The area of the brain where you have it is the area of the brain that is responsible for memory, attention.

That is DHA is good for children and pregnant women because a lot of it is accumulated when the brain is developing,” Adu, also a Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry Department, Lagos State University (LASU), said.

Giving children the DHA they need to grow optimally

Docosahexaenoic acid is one of three main omega-3 fatty acids, with ALA and EPA being the other two big ones. DHA and other omega-3s play essential roles in the body throughout a person’s lifespan.

They’re a rich source of energy, and they also help maintain the healthy functioning of our heart, lungs, and immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids help to control inflammation, stabilise mood, and may reduce anxiety and depression.

According to health experts, the beneficial work of omega-3s takes place at the cellular level. DHA and other omega-3s are absorbed by our cells, where they help cells maintain their optimal structure and also to communicate effectively with one another.

Among omega-3 fatty acids, DHA is said to be particularly critical for healthy brain development and function; besides giving structure to brain cells and facilitating their communication.

That is not all. DHA has other vital roles to play such as helping the human brain create and maintain what’s known as plasticity or the ability of the brain to modify its structure and the ways it functions.

Human brains’ plasticity supports a person’s ability to learn, to change behaviours, to process emotions and emotional experiences, and to recover from brain injury or damage.

Also, DHA continues to fuel the growth of new brain cells as a person ages and develops beyond the first two years of life. It is equally critical to cellular development in the eyes and helps to maintain healthy vision.

Although DHA has a unique significance for infants, this fatty acid is an essential nutrient throughout a person’s life. That’s because, during the earliest months and years of life, DHA helps to fuel an incredible pace of growth and development of the brain of children.

How children’s brain grows

DHA’s role in infant health and development actually begins before birth. Significant amounts of DHA collect in the brain during the second half of pregnancy (especially during the third trimester), when the fetal brain undergoes a breathtaking pace of growth.

The infant’s brain continues a rapid pace of growth and development during the first 12 months of life. During that first year, the infant’s brain grows to nearly three-quarters the size of the adult brain. Whereas, at birth, the infant’s brain is roughly one-quarter to one-third the size of an adult brain.What’s happening during this time of intense growth and development? The infant’s brain is building itself out structurally and foundationally, laying the groundwork for a lifetime of neural activity that includes all our thinking and reasoning, our social, emotional, and behavioural regulation, our learning and decision making.Research shows the amount of brain growth that takes place during their first year is one significant factor influencing a child’s intelligence later in life. How DHA benefits children’s brain development Because DHA is a structural constituent of membranes specifically in the central nervous system, its accumulation in the fetal brain takes place mainly during […]

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