The role of nutrition in brain development during the first three years of life.
The first three years of life are crucial for the development of the brain and the achievement of milestones in cognitive, motor and social skills. Because of the connection between brain development and the role played by nutrition in brain development, nutritional deficiencies can greatly impair language development.
Good nutrition during infancy and toddlerhood is important not only for normal physical growth and development but also for the development of the brain and nervous system. Adequate intake of energy, proteins, essential fatty acids, minerals (iron, iodine, zinc) and vitamins (including folic acid) is required for normal brain development.
2. The role of nutrition in brain development
During the first three years of life, the human brain more than doubles in size. This rapid growth is fuelled by nutrients, especially omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for the formation of nerve cell membranes and the myelin sheath that insulates nerve cells.
There is increasing evidence that early childhood nutrition has a lasting impact on cognitive performance and educational achievement. Studies have shown that children who are malnourished or have poor diets are more likely to have lower IQ scores and perform poorly in school.
In addition to its role in cognitive development, nutrition also plays a role in emotional development. Children who are malnourished or have poor diets are more likely to be anxious or depressed.
3. Importance of a good growth environment
A good growth environment is essential for normal physical and mental development. A safe and stimulating home environment is important for physical growth and motor development. A loving and nurturing caregiving relationship is important for emotional development and social skills.
4. Balanced nutritional intake during infancy and toddlerhood
During infancy and toddlerhood, it is important to provide a balanced diet that meets the energy needs of the growing child. Breast milk or infant formula should be the main source of nutrition for babies up to 6 months old. From 6 to 12 months old, babies can start to eat solid foods in addition to breast milk or formula. After 12 months old, whole milk can be introduced as a drink alongside solid foods.
From birth to 6 months old, babies should be fed on demand – whenever they seem hungry. From 6 to 12 months old, babies can start to be offered 3 regular meals per day plus 2–3 snacks. After 12 months old, children can start to eat 3 regular meals per day plus 1–2 snacks.
It is important to ensure that meals and snacks are nutritious and offer a variety of different foods from the main food groups:
– Bread, cereals, rice, pasta or potatoes
– Fruit and vegetables
– Milk and dairy products
– Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat or other protein sources
A small number of calories should come from fat (no more than 30% of total daily energy intake). It is also important to limit sugar intake (no more than 10% of total daily energy intake). Salt should not be added to food for infants under 12 months old. Drinking water should be available at all times – even before solid foods are introduced at around 6 months old. Milk should not displace water in the diet.
5. Introducing solid foods
Solid foods should be introduced gradually from around 6 months old. It is important to start with small amounts of food and increase the amount and variety of foods gradually. Foods should be mashed or cut into small pieces to prevent choking. Babies should be seated in an upright position when eating and supervised at all times.
Good nutrition during infancy and toddlerhood is important for physical, mental and emotional development. A balanced diet that includes a variety of different foods from the main food groups is essential for normal growth and development. Breast milk or infant formula should be the main source of nutrition for babies up to 6 months old. From 6 to 12 months old, babies can start to eat solid foods in addition to breast milk or formula. After 12 months old, whole milk can be introduced as a drink alongside solid foods.