The role of nutrition in child development cannot be emphasised enough, as the foods he or she consumes impacts mental abilities like attention, memory, thinking, learning, and perception. The maximum extent of brain development takes place during pregnancy and till your child turns five years of age. And this determines how their brain is going to work throughout the rest of their life. Important nerves keep growing and they get connected and covered up with myelin, which together forms a basis of how your child thinks and feels when he or she grows up.
Nutrition and cognitive development are closely related as foods affect sensory systems, learning ability, memory, attention power, ability to control impulses, moods, and ability to multitask or plan. The most important thing to note is that brain development cannot be undone. The environment the child is brought up in as well as the way he or she is nurtured also influences this development. Breastfeeding also plays a very important role as it not only provides nourishment to the baby but also helps in the mother – child bonding.
How does a baby’s brain develop?
The average size of a baby’s brain is about a quarter of the size of an average adult brain. In the first year itself, it doubles in size. It keeps growing continuously to about 80% of an adult-sized brain, by the time your child becomes 3 years of age. And by 5 years, his or her brain is fully grown. When a baby is born, the brain cells or neurons are already developed but the neural connections that help them to move, think, and communicate, develop in the early childhood years. One million new neural connections, also called synapses, are formed every second, during this phase.
There are different areas in the brain that play key roles in determining different abilities, like movement, language, and emotion. These areas develop at different rates. As the neural connections form in complex ways, they enable your child to move, speak, and think in complex ways. Certain connections that influence higher abilities like motivation, self-regulation, problem-solving and communication, are either formed in their early years or not formed at all. Children’s brains develop as they grow and depend on positive interactions with their parents and caregivers. How well their senses will develop will depend on their daily experiences, the amount and quality of care, and the stimulation and interaction that they get.
What is the relationship between nutrition and brain development or learning?
Nutrition and cognitive functions are directly related. Nutrients play a very important role in DNA synthesis, neurotransmitter and hormone metabolism, and are very important components of the enzymes that are found in the brain. Being malnourished decreases the number of neurons in your child’s brain, thus changing their brain structure. This negatively affects their learning ability and cognitive behaviour. There are certain nutrients that play a major role in brain development especially, and they are listed below along with food sources:
- Protein: Meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, soy products, nuts and seeds, and all dairy products are very rich in protein.
- Zinc: Oysters are rich sources of zinc but so are meat, fish, dairy products, and nuts.
- Iron: Meats, beans and lentils, fortified cereals and breads, dark leafy vegetables, and potatoes have iron in abundance.
- Choline: Meat, dairy, eggs, along with many vegetables, are rich in choline.
- Folate: Folate is a nutrient that is crucial for pregnant women, and can be obtained from chicken liver, fortified cereals, breads and spinach.
- Iodine: A major source of iodine is seaweed, but you can also obtain this nutrient from iodized salt, dairy items, seafood, and fortified grains.
- Vitamin A: Vegetables like carrots, spinach, sweet potato, as well as liver, have high levels of vitamin A.
- Vitamin B6: Liver, other organ meats, fish, starchy vegetables like potatoes, and fruits other than citrus fruits, are very good sources of vitamin B6.
- Vitamin B12: Natural sources of vitamin B12 are animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish, fish oils and other fortified foods are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Families who are vegetarian or vegan might need to introduce some supplements in their child’s diet, based on the advice of the doctor, to meet some of the nutritional requirements.
Along with getting the right kind of nutrition, relationship with the child can influence the development of his or her brain immensely. When a baby is smiling or crying, or a toddler is communicating his or her needs and interests, caregivers should take the opportunity to respond to them. This will help in the growth of the child’s brain and support cognitive development. It is essential to talk, sing, read and play with children from the day they are born. You also need to give them opportunities to explore their environment while providing them safety and stability.
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