Brain Development - During the early years, children experience rapid growth and development, a large proportion of which occurs within the brain. It takes a lot to build a brain, in fact from birth onwards, there is a phenomenal amount of growth to be done and most of this takes place in the first three years of life. Our brain will grow to 80-90% of its adult size by the age of 3. Brain development is not just about the brain growing in size, but connections and pathways of understanding. It is the forming of these connections during this stage of life that is crucially important.

Brain Development - Numbers and neurons

To put the influence of these neuron connections into context, let’s look at some numbers. Babies will have around 2500 neuron communications, and a healthy toddler aged 2-3 will have around 15,000 neuron communications (many more than an adult brain). That’s a huge increase and the most influential way to increase these neuron connections is positivity. Continuous, positive reinforcement via smiles, praise, encouragement and enthusiasm all motivate a child to feel safe to grow. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said for negativity and traumatic experiences within this crucial period of brain development.

An amazing dietary intake will not undo the damage caused by the child receiving poor social interaction, a lack of affection and discouragement. Cognitive, motor, and emotional milestones are all underpinned by a variety of factors such as nutrition. Food isn’t the complete answer, but it does play a very big role in brain development.

The link between formative nutrition, brain development and cognitive skills is incredibly complex. EFAs are Essential Fatty Acids and they are indeed, essential and for a good reason! 40% of our brain is made up of EFAs. There are four EFAs making up 40% of the brain; AA (Arachidonic Acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic Acid).

These essential fats are crucially important for intelligence, mood, and behaviour. Indeed, the frontal lobe of the brain should be rich in DHA helping with problem-solving, focus attention and planning skills. Babies, toddlers, and children need to solve problems all of the time! Remember, with babies and toddlers, everything is new to them.

Human brains take a very long time to grow into a fully mature adult brain and all that growth and development takes a lot of feeding. During childhood when the brain is undergoing its rapid growth 50% of the total energy intake goes to feeding the brain, this reduces to just 20% of the total energy intake in an adult. If we consider that thinking alone can utilise around 300 calories each day, it’s clear to see how building a brain can use so much energy.

Prior to starting any formal academic journey, a child’s neural connections have, largely, already been established, hence the ‘window of opportunity’ in the early years. Childhood brain development depends on the energy and nutrients provided to the brain at this crucial time of life. Formative nutrition is so important that what we eat at this point in our lives can impact future eating habits, future health and even IQ.

There are few more important roles than those which shape the future health of a small child. Remember that your role as a parent, carer or someone working with children, is very influential and powerful for the child and that by feeding that child a nutritious, well-thought-out diet, you are helping them to forge a healthy, lifelong relationship with food.

In the last article, I wrote about the importance of the first 1000 days, some of the early brain development nutritional links are covered here but it isn’t just growing our brain that needs good nutrition, it’s day-to-day functioning such as concentration, problem-solving, thinking, remembering and even our emotions. All our actions and behaviours are influenced by our nutritional intake.

Essential vitamins and minerals to include

In particular relevance to brain function, the following vitamins and minerals are some examples of those which support concentration, focus, learning and memory:

  • Iodine – this is stimulating to brain tissue and appears in seafoods, eggs and dairy
  • Zinc – Builds polyunsaturated fatty acids which are essential for brain formation and function – appears in meat, fish and cheeses
  • Vitamin C – has many roles in the body including being needed to make acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory – abundant in many whole foods but very high in green veg, strawberries, oranges, peppers, kiwi, tomatoes to name a few
  • B vitamins – aim to choose wholegrains which are complete with B vitamins which have many roles in the body including energy transfer and metabolism. These vitamins are also needed to make acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory

Nutrition has many roles in our health and general well-being but is crucial for early childhood development. There’s always so much more to feeding a child than simply making sure that they are full. That said, it can be confusing, and contradictory, and sometimes, the media can make you feel guilty about food choices. This shouldn’t be the case. We are living in an increasingly obesogenic environment with a food landscape unrecognisable from just 20 years ago. Understanding enough about nutrition will help you navigate this landscape. Helping a generation of children to grow up able to make informed choices on food amidst a food environment designed for hyper-palatability and convenience over health is a powerful gift you can give to them.

Did you find this blog useful? Click here to learn about the important of bone health in a child's physical development. 

If you're interested in learning more about nutrition in early years, please check out our free webinar here!


About the author:

Louise is an Early Years Nutrition Consultant and focuses on health and nutrition. Louise also hosts a radio show ‘Food For Thought’ on Teacher Hug Radio.

    About the author:

    Louise is an Early Years Nutrition Consultant and focuses on health and nutrition. Louise also hosts a radio show ‘Food For Thought’ on Teacher Hug Radio.

      About the author:

      Louise is an Early Years Nutrition Consultant and focuses on health and nutrition. Louise also hosts a radio show ‘Food For Thought’ on Teacher Hug Radio.

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