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Importance of Nutrition to Early Brain Growth

By Lia Stannard ; Updated June 13, 2017

Getting the proper nutrients are essential to help a child's brain grow and develop. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families states that the nutrition the child gets--either through her mother's diet during pregnancy, breastfeeding or solid food--affects the size and development of her brain. The University of Washington adds that certain foods are needed during the developing years, as they contain the precursors of neurotransmitters. Without proper nutrition, the child suffers from multiple deficits.

Time Frame of Early Brain Growth

The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families states that the time frame for early brain growth begins at mid-gestation, while the child is still in his mother's womb, and goes until age 2. The mother's diet during her pregnancy can determine the child's brain size and birth weight; if the mother does not provide enough nutrients to the child while he is in utero, his brain will not develop to its full potential. In order for the child to get enough nourishment during the pregnancy, the mother should gain an additional 20 percent from her ideal pre-pregnancy weight.

Breast Milk Nutrition

Breast milk provides the best nutrients for brain development, according to the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that breast milk contains antibodies to help a child fight infections, plus “digestive proteins, minerals, vitamins and hormones.” At six months, children will start to receive iron supplementation from the breast milk. If a child is being bottle-fed, formula with iron supplements are recommended, as an iron deficiency can cause cognitive deficits.

Fats for Myelination

Another importance of nutrition to early brain growth is myelination, which is the formation of myelin around the axon of the neuron. The myelin speeds up neural signals and protects the integrity of the signals, preventing a breakdown in strength when carried down the neuron. Because myelination occurs rapidly during a child's early years, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families recommends a high level of fat in her diet, about 50 percent of total calories. This can be found in breast milk, although a child can be given whole milk at age 1. When a child reaches age 2, the amount of fat should be reduced to 30 percent.

Precursors for Neurotransmitters

Specific foods contain the precursors for neurotransmitters, which are essential for communication in the brain and with the rest of the body; without these precursors, children can suffer from neurological problems or mood disorders. Some of the neurotransmitters that rely on precursors found in food are norepinephrine, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, acetylcholine and aspartate, according to the University of Washington. Examples of precursor-rich foods are eggs, milk, meat and potatoes.

Dangers of Malnutrition

Serious consequences can occur if children do not get enough nutrition. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families states that malnourished children have smaller brains due to a “reduced dendritic growth, reduced myelination and the production of fewer glia.” The smaller size can result in behavioral and cognitive problems, which can impede a child's performance in school.

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