Healthy brain development starts early and continues throughout childhood. A healthy brain influences how well kids learn, pay attention, control impulses, anticipate, plan and make decisions. It also impacts their social-emotional skills, mood and mental health.
According to a 2016 Journal of Pediatrics article on the role of nutrition in brain development, the structural and intellectual capacity of the brain is mostly established by age 3. In infancy, the brain’s framework and "information highway" is established.
While babies can’t talk or read, they learn from observation, connecting with caretakers and their environment. This process continues in the toddler years, resulting in the emergence of language, social skills and learning through play.
In childhood, formal learning, executive skills like planning ahead and decision-making abilities emerge. While brain growth and development still happen in adolescence, a shift occurs. The brain begins to prune itself, removing underutilized neurons and information pathways so more important ones can flourish.
Brain development in young children is influenced by many things, but experts focus on three key areas: exposure, experiences and nutrition.
Exposure to toxins like lead, as well as infection, stress and trauma can have long-term repercussions on brain development. Likewise, positive or negative experiences can also influence brain development. For example, neglect or abuse can have devastating, lasting effects, while playing with a child or reading stories together are beneficial for brain development. The third key to a healthy brain is nutrition.
Nutrients for Healthy Brain Development
Many nutrients are needed for normal, healthy brain development, including protein and fat, and micronutrients such as the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, choline, iron and zinc.
The goal is to ensure nutritional needs are met. Young brains are more vulnerable to the impact of a nutrient deficiency than older brains. In fact, a nutrient deficiency early in life may have an impact on the developing structure of the brain, impair function and could lead to cognitive deficits later on.
Although the brain is “plastic” and may recover from an insult like a nutrient deficiency, experts note there are critical windows of development and times when regions of the brain have higher nutrient needs. That makes a deficiency during this critical developmental period more damaging.
This macronutrient and its amino acids are building blocks of any growth process, including brain development. Protein is a component of neurons, or nerve cells, and neurotransmitters, which transmit messages between neurons, and helps build the structure and size of the brain.
Experts agree that protein (and energy) insufficiency in the first three years of life may lead to growth failure and negatively affect neurodevelopment.
More than half of the brain is made up of fat. Fat is essential in the diet of young children for neurological development and brain function. Inadequate fat in the diet can lead to poor growth and cognitive outcomes.
Docosahexaenoic acid, or what's more commonly referred to as DHA, is a long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acid and a prominent omega-3 fat in the brain. DHA is necessary for the creation, movement, organization and connection of the brain’s neurons. It is also involved in building the structure of the retina. As such, DHA plays a role in intelligence, vision, attention and impulse control.
Choline is an essential nutrient, meaning we need to get it from our diet since our body doesn't produce it. Choline is involved in brain cell structure, neurotransmission, and memory processing and storage.
Getting enough of this nutrient, which can be found in egg yolks as well as meat and nuts like pistachios and almonds, also helps prevent neural tube defects, or birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, like spina bifida.
Iron is required for the normal anatomy of the brain. Myelination, the process of coating the neurons with a fat sheath called myelin, to accomodate the efficient transmission of information throughout the brain, requires iron. Additionally, neurotransmitters that send chemical messages across the brain to regulate physical functioning, such as heart rate and breathing, and psychological functioning, including learning and concentration, depend on getting sufficient iron in the diet.
There are many food sources of iron. The nutrient can be found in animal products, such as beef or chicken liver, beef, poultry and fish. Plant sources include beans, enriched breakfast cereal, tofu and spinach, and should be eaten with a vitamin C food like tomatoes or citrus fruits to enhance the iron's absorption in the body.
Zinc is involved in all the main functions of the brain. A zinc deficiency in early childhood has been tied to poor learning, attention, memory and mood. Meat, shellfish, beans, nuts and whole grains are good sources of zinc.
What You Can Do
A child’s brain development starts in utero during pregnancy, but it doesn’t end there. Here are five nutrition tips for optimizing brain development across childhood:
1. In the childbearing years, eat a nutrient-rich diet.
Correct any nutritional deficits you may have, and maintain a healthy body weight. Take prenatal vitamins if you are pregnant.
Be particularly observant of your iron status as research indicates around 1 in 6 women of childbearing age are iron deficient.
2. Breastfeed your child if you are able.
Make sure you continue to eat a nutrient-rich diet, with particular emphasis on DHA, iron and zinc. To get enough DHA, eat 8 to 12 ounces, or about two or three servings, of seafood per week.
If you aren't able to get enough DHA in your diet, supplement with 200 to 300 milligrams of DHA per day, as recommended by the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and American Academy of Pediatrics, respectively. Plan to start your baby on an iron supplement at 4 months if breastfeeding as directed by your pediatrician. If bottle-feeding, use an iron- and DHA-fortified formula.
3. For both breastfed and formula-fed babies, start solids around 6 months.
Iron and zinc provisions from breast milk decrease while baby’s requirement for these nutrients increase at this time. Include meats and iron- and zinc-fortified cereals in the dietary pattern of breastfed infants.
4. Don't be discouraged by picky eating.
During the toddler years, children may become picky, potentially narrowing the diet and the nutrients they receive. Adopt an “every bite counts” mindset, focusing on meals and snacks that supply a variety of foods that introduce new flavors, cuisines and textures.
It’s important to introduce sources of healthy fats, particularly fish, to help children develop a taste for them. Watch out for too many sweets and treats, as they can crowd out nutrients that are critical for brain health.
5. In childhood and adolescence, focus on the quality of the diet.
Choose wholesome, nutritious foods. Target meats, fish, beans, nutrient-rich grains, plant-based fats, eggs, nuts and nut butters and plenty of fruits and vegetables to anchor the diet.
Some companies and industries are targeting brain nutrients in their products, such as with DHA-fortified yogurt, eggs and milk. Fortified foods, used in combination with natural food sources, can help children get enough of the key nutrients for brain development.