Eating a nutritious diet plays a key role in children’s cognitive development, before and after birth, says Lindsay Gilbert…
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from preconception to his or her second birthday, is acknowledged to be a critical time for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.
Children’s genes and the environment in which they grow up in, including their socioeconomic circumstances and the quality of their education, play a central role in this process, but the presence, or absence, of certain nutrients is also an important factor, particularly in the case of early cognitive development, with often irreversible effects being observed in children who have been severely malnourished during pregnancy or early infancy.
As such, early years providers are in a prime position to contribute on several levels to support a child to reach their full potential, including ensuring they receive the nutrition their brains need to thrive.
To help you help them, let’s explore some of the key nutrients involved in cognitive development during early life, as well as what the research says about the role of nutrition before, during and after pregnancy; the effects of breastfeeding and weaning; and the important role of breakfast…
Several nutrients are known to play a key role in the cognitive development of the unborn child. These include iron, zinc, iodine and selenium. An undersupply of these nutrients can stunt foetal growth, which can lead to poor brain development resulting in chronic illness.
Iodine, for example, is required for proper functioning of the thyroid gland, which regulates growth and metabolism, and iodine deficiency is the primary cause of preventable learning disability and brain damage.
This has a devastating impact on brain development, affecting a child’s ability to learn in later years, lowering IQ or resulting in poorer reading ability.
As iodine is required from the early stages of pregnancy through to breastfeeding, it’s particularly important that women have had sufficient iodine in their diet for several months before becoming pregnant in order to make sufficient thyroid hormone to transfer to the growing baby to help its brain develop correctly.
Iron, on the other hand, is a key component of brain tissue and the enzymes involved in the development of the brain, so an adequate supply is of particular importance for the development of the brain and nervous system.
However, iron deficiency anaemia is thought to affect as many as 20% of pregnant women, may cause permanent damage to a child’s brain and is linked to delayed cognitive, psychomotor and behavioural development in infancy and early childhood.
Recently, the focus has moved away from concentrating on individual nutrients to looking at the overall ‘quality’ of the maternal diet as having a positive link to child cognitive development.
Diets during pregnancy that include oily fish, are low in saturated fat, include fibre intake from fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains are considered important in having a small but statistically significant effect on child neurodevelopment.
However, evidence also suggests the quality of the postnatal maternal diet as well as the quality of the child’s diet during infancy and early toddlerhood is very important in cognitive development.
The benefits of breastfeeding to both mother and child are well known, but there is some evidence that suggests a causal link between breastfeeding and improved cognitive development, learning and IQ (irrespective of certain confounding effects, eg family income).
Studies exploring the association between breastfeeding and different cognitive development measures have found associations between longer breastfeeding duration and better general cognitive development – for example, higher IQ, better educational attainment and language development as well as lower risk of having ADHD.
However, for children who have not been breastfed or who are breastfed for less time than is recommended, the quality of the maternal diet plays a more significant role in those children than breastfeeding itself.
In July 2018, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) released a report, Feeding in the First Year of Life, that reviews the scientific evidence underpinning the UK infant and young child feeding policy.
The report strengthens the recommendation for exclusive breastfeeding for around the first six months (and to continue breastfeeding for at least the first year of life once solid foods have been introduced), and recommends that solids are not introduced until around six months of age.
With the important role of iron in cognitive development having been discussed earlier, the report also underlines the importance of this nutrient during weaning, stating that “a wide range of solids including iron containing foods in an age-appropriate form should be introduced from six months”.
Breakfast is a hugely important meal as an opportunity to provide ‘brain-boosting’ nutrients. Many cereals enjoyed by children are fortified with vitamins and minerals such as iron, and the accompanying cow’s milk provides iodine as well as calcium.
It is important that children are encouraged to eat breakfast every day to embed it as a healthy habit from a young age, as many children skip breakfast as they get older.
Including a serving of fruit or vegetables with breakfast provides vitamin C, which helps the body to absorb the iron found in plant sources, such as those in cereals.
Good dietary sources of iron include red meat, eggs, lentils, dried fruit, nuts and green leafy vegetables.
Iodine is found predominantly in milk and dairy products, fish and eggs; selenium is found in brazil nuts, meat, poultry, beans and seeds; and zinc is found in red meat, seafood, chicken, beans and nuts. Women who are vegetarian or those who don’t drink milk may need to look closely at their diets to ensure they are getting enough of these nutrients and take an appropriate pregnancy multivitamin (which also includes folic acid and vitamin D).
Iron-rich snacks for toddlers
Lindsay Gilbert is a paediatric dietitian and joint director of Foodtalk, a social enterprise specialising in the provision of nutrition training and educational resources to early years practitioners. Visit foodtalk.org.uk or email Lindsay at firstname.lastname@example.org.