The Best Foods for Baby Brain Development

Certain foods have been proven to positively affect your baby's memory and capacity to learn, while others can hinder it. Here's how to improve baby brain development with your diet during pregnancy.

Your baby's brain is one of the first organs to take shape, with development beginning in the third week of pregnancy. It will grow at a staggering rate of about 250,000 nerve cells per minute in the months to come, consuming more than half of the available energy during gestation. Keeping that in mind, it's no surprise that what you eat and drink can have a significant impact on baby's brain development. Here's what to eat for the best brain-building capabilities.

Pop Your Prenatal Vitamin Daily

Taking a prenatal vitamin will help ensure you get the balance of nutrients your baby needs. These include folic acid and vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, vitamin C to produce collagen, vitamin D for bone building, and zinc for brain development. If your vitamin upsets your stomach, don't just ditch it; try taking it with a meal, or talk to your doctor about switching brands.

Munch on Fruits and Veggies

Produce contains antioxidants that are beneficial for your baby. "Antioxidants protect the baby's brain tissue from damage," says nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy. Choose deep-colored produce—like dark leafy greens, papaya, blueberries, and tomatoes—for the biggest antioxidant punch. Just remember to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly, including ones that have a rind (since cutting it will drag germs through the flesh).

Pregnant person eating a bowl of fruit at home
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Get Omega-3s

Because it's rich in omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, fish may boost your baby's brain power. In a study from Harvard Medical School, the more fish pregnant people ate during the second trimester, the higher their babies scored on a mental development test at 6 months of age. Omega-3s are found in brain cell membranes, so there are plenty of ways they can influence brain function, says Lise Eliot, Ph.D, assistant professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, in Chicago. If you don't like fish, talk to your doctor about taking a fish oil supplement. Flaxseed and chia seeds also contain omega-3s.

Be Mindful of Mercury

Fish is good for your baby's brain, but pregnant people need to take a few precautions. That's because mercury contamination in some fish may be harmful for a developing baby. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises avoiding shark, tilefish, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, bigeye tuna, and swordfish completely during pregnancy, since they contain the highest mercury levels. Some lower-mercury options include salmon, catfish, pollack, whitefish, tilapia, and shrimp. Even with these varieties, you should limit all fish to 12 ounces (about two or three servings) per week. And opt for canned light tuna over canned white albacore, which contains more mercury.

Boost Protein Levels

Your body needs more protein during pregnancy to build cells and make hormones for your growing baby. Depending on your specific circumstances, experts usually recommend 75 to 100 grams of protein per day, according to the American Pregnancy Association. Some healthy protein boosters include a yogurt smoothie at breakfast, a cup of bean soup at lunch, peanut butter on whole-grain crackers for a snack, or a 3-ounce portion of lean beef (tenderloin and sirloin are good choices) at dinner.

Pump Up Your Iron Intake

Your iron intake needs to double during pregnancy, since iron helps deliver life-sustaining oxygen to your baby. The trouble is, many people enter pregnancy already deficient, says Somer. If your baby's deprived of oxygen in the womb, the risk of poor growth—and lower IQ—increases. Ask your doctor to test you for iron deficiency, then make sure your diet includes iron-rich foods like lean beef, chicken, legumes, and fortified breakfast cereal.

Avoid Alcohol and Smoking

Though fetal alcohol syndrome is associated with heavy alcohol abuse during pregnancy, even moderate amounts of beer, wine, or liquor can harm a baby's brain, according to the March of Dimes. Light to moderate drinking can lead to problems with learning, attention, memory, and social skills down the road.

Smoking during pregnancy can also damage a baby's developing brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking has also been linked to premature birth, which increases the risk of health problems such as cerebral palsy and developmental delays.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

You're eating for two now, but gaining more than the recommended amount during pregnancy ups your chances of a premature delivery—and babies born early may be at a disadvantage when it comes to learning. "Premature delivery is one of the greatest risk factors for mental impairment," says Dr. Eliot. "There's a strong link between birth weight, IQ score, and school achievement." What's the connection? Babies born early miss out on the unique nourishment that the placenta provides, are exposed to stimuli they're normally protected from in the womb, and are more vulnerable to infection.

The Bottom Line

A healthy, balanced pregnancy diet can positively impact your baby's brain development. Always ask your doctor about any questions regarding pregnancy nutrition.

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