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Nutrition & Brain Development in 1-2 Year Olds

By Kristin Conley, R.D. ; Updated June 13, 2017

The human brain undergoes rapid growth during the first two years of life. Neuroscience research done at the University of Washington shows that by the age of two, the brain is about 80 percent of the size of an adult's brain. There are many factors that can affect brain growth and development, and nutrition is one of the key factors.

Toddler Brain Development

The human brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons, according to the Neuroscience Department of the University of Washington. Each neuron has an axon and a dendrite, which help send and receive information throughout the body. The speed at which the information can be sent is largely impacted by myelin. Myelin is a thick substance made of fat that insulates the neuron's axons and dendrites. This insulation of the nerve fibers allows information to be sent and received by the brain at a much faster rate. Myelination, or the formation of myelin, begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the first two years of life.

Nutrition and Brain Growth

Inadequate nutrition affects the growth of a child's entire body, including the growth of their brain. A child who does not receive adequate calories and protein will have a smaller brain and decreased myelination, which can result in behavioral and cognitive deficits. Because myelin is made from fat, infants and toddlers up to the age of two require increased amounts of dietary fat to support the rapid myelination occurring in their brains. The Zero to Three Foundation recommends that up to 50% of total calories should come from fat from birth until the age of two.

Sources of Fat

For toddlers between the ages of 1 and 2 years, breast milk and whole cow's milk are excellent sources of dietary fat. The Nemours Foundation recommends giving your child 16 to 24 oz. of whole milk daily to provide adequate amounts of fat. Giving your child more than 24 oz. of milk per day may result in your child being too full to eat other foods that are rich in other important nutrients. Additional nutritious dietary sources of fat for your child include yogurt and cheese.

Meal & Snack Tips

Remember that toddlers have small stomachs, so they need to eat small amounts of food frequently throughout the day. Offer milk with meals to ensure your child has plenty of opportunities to get the fat needed for brain development. If your child is more interested in food at meal time, try offering milk as a snack about 1 to 2 hours before a meal. Remember that it may take your child some time to get used to the taste of whole cow's milk when transitioning from formula or breast milk. To help with the transition, you can mix the cow's milk with formula or breast milk, slowly increasing the amount of cow's milk.

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