Why The First 1,000 Days Really Matter

The seeds of Baby's health are planted in utero, and they continue to grow throughout early childhood. Here's how "the first 1000 days" impacts mental and physical well-being.

Happy Baby Eating Spoon In High Chair
Photo: Nina Buday/Shutterstock

Achieving mental and physical health is a lifelong endeavor. But did you know that “the first 1,000 days” of a person’s life – which stretches from conception to two years – is the most critical for brain, body, metabolism, and immune system development? Malnutrition during this time is linked to a host of health issues, ranging from obesity to stunted growth. Here’s everything you need to know about the first 1,000 days.

What Is The First 1,000 Days?

According to non-profit organization 1,000 Days, a baby's brain already contains 10 billion cells during the 24th week of pregnancy – and these cells thrive on nutrition from the mother. If she’s not eating enough calories or nutrients, the brain won’t form properly, which may lead to developmental delays and birth defects.

A baby’s brain continues to develop after he’s born, especially during the first few years of life. In fact, the brain makes 700 neural connections per second during age one, and it reaches 80% of adult brain size by age two, says Evelyn Rusli, co-founder of an organic baby food brand called Yumi, which was developed with the first 1,000 days in mind. Again, the nutrition a child receives plays a major role.

“Babies are built for nutrition. It's the fuel for growth and development in the brain” says Lucy Sullivan, Executive Director of 1,000 Days. Sullivan says chronic malnutrition in utero or early childhood may cause to stunting, or a failure to thrive. This irreversible condition negatively impacts brain function, IQ, and the immune system. Stunting is also associated with a greater risk of diabetes, cancer, or other diseases.

On the other hand, if an infant receives excess nutrition (too much unhealthy foods) in the first 1,000 days of life, they’re more likely to have future weight issues or heart health problems. Gaining too much weight too fast “could predispose children to a lifelong struggle with obesity – plus diseases that are associated with obesity like diabetes or heart disease,” says Sullivan.

Nutrition During The First 1,000 Days

“Parents have an important role in determining their kid’s nutritional health,” says Rusli. Babies need enough calories, proteins, and nutrients – both in utero and early childhood – for optimal health. Here are some things babies should eat during their first 1,000 days.

Iron: “A baby is born with a certain amount of iron. That naturally depletes between 4-6 months, so it’s important to feed Baby foods that are high in iron,” says Rusli. About one in 10 kids don't get enough iron – and deficiency can lead to irritability, impaired social behavior, learning disabilities, depression later in life, and other side effects. Even when iron deficiency is resolved during the first 1,000 days, cognitive effects can last into adulthood, says Rusli. Therefire it's important to focus on iron from pregnancy through age two.

Iodine: Sullivan emphasizes that iodine is vital for brain development, and lack of iodine (partly caused by the popularity of non-iodized sea salt) could impair brain function.

Folate: Necessary for the brain and spinal cord, folate is a key nutrient during pregnancy and after birth. Sources of folate include leafy green vegetables, some fruits, grains, and prenatal vitamins with folic acid.

Calcium: Calcium is great as kids’ bones are becoming dense,” says Rusli. The nutrient also promotes healthy teeth, nerves, muscles, and blood clotting function.

Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (like DHA): The right kinds of fat – specifically long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids like DHA – promote brain health and immunity. That’s partly why pregnant woman are encouraged to eat low-mercury fresh fish during pregnancy.

Vitamin A: Your cells, major organs, and vision rely on Vitamin A. “Deficiency is rare but it’s a global issue,” says Sullivan.

Other Nutrients: According to 1,000 Days, other important nutrients during the first 1,00 days include vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin D, vitamin K, selenium, copper, zinc, choline, and protein.

Varied Tastes and Textures: “Kids don't come out of the womb asking for chocolate cake. You set their baseline and taste preferences,” says Rusli. Toddlers cement their palette by age three, so it's important to introduce them to a variety of healthy foods during the first 1,000 days. "It can take a dozen or so times before a baby has adjusted to a new flavor. Keep trying," she adds. "The more flavors your baby is exposed to early on, the less likely they are to turn into picky eaters down the road."

Foods to Avoid: To prevent obesity and problems associated with it, Sullivan recommends avoiding foods with added sugar during pregnancy and infancy. She also suggests staying away from processed meat, excess sodium, and junk food. And be sure to read food labels carefully: "Just because something says kale in big, bubbly letters on the front, doesn’t mean that it’s the equivalent of a lush kale salad – kale may be the 5th or 6th ingredient down," says Rusli.

How To Get Nutrients During Pregnancy and Infancy

Wondering how to give your infant sufficient nutrients during his first 1,000 days? The first step is eating a varied, nutritious, and complete diet during pregnancy. Once your baby is born, Sullivan advises breastfeeding, if possible. Breast milk promotes healthy brain development, and it’s been linked to higher intelligence, IQ scores, and motor function skills – as well as decreased risk of allergies, eczema, stomach upset, SIDS, and certain viruses. What’s more, Sullivan says the nurturing involved in breastfeeding strengthens senses and emotions in babies. (Don’t worry if you can’t breastfeed; formula-fed babies can still get proper nutrition during the first 1,000 days).

After you’re finished breastfeeding, provide your infant with wholesome foods and natural ingredients. For example, Rusli and Angela Sutherland co-founded Yumi, which manufactures and delivers organic baby food. The nutritionist-approved meals, which come in small jars, are gluten-free, allergen-free, low in total fruit sugar, and full of micronutrients. Your baby will train his taste buds by “graduating” through three different texture levels: single ingredient purees (in flavors like Kale, Apple, and Dragonfruit), multi-ingredient soups and pies (like Minestrone, which has tomato, carrots, kale, and zucchini), and chunky puddings and bowls (like “Cran Squash,” which contains butternut squash, apple, white beans, and cranberry). Every Yumi meal is developed with the first 1,000 days in mind, with ingredients formulated for an infant’s age and nutritional needs. Yumi claims their products reduce a future sweet tooth, expand kids’ palettes, and promote healthy development. For more, visit the Yumi website.

With proper research and informed parenting, you’ll supply your infant with everything he needs during the first 1,000 days, setting him up for a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.

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