Prenatal Diet: The Best Foods for Baby Brain Development

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

pregnant woman eating salad
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Pop Your Prenatal Vitamin Daily

Taking a prenatal vitamin will help ensure that you get the balance of nutrients your baby needs, like 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.

Get Omega-3s

Fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, may boost your baby's brain power. In a study from Harvard Medical School, the more fish women 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 Lisa Eliot, PhD, 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.

Be Mindful of Mercury

Fish is good for your baby's brain, but you do need to take a few precautions. Mercury contamination in some fish may be harmful. The Food and Drug Administration advises all pregnant women to avoid shark, tilefish, king mackerel, and swordfish completely, since they contain the highest levels. Some lower-mercury options: salmon, catfish, pollack, whitefish, tilapia, and shrimp. Even with these varieties, you should limit all fish to 12 ounces (about two meals) per week. And opt for canned light tuna over canned white albacore, which has more mercury.

Munch on Fruits and Veggies

Produce contains antioxidants, which are good 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, even fruits that have a rind (since cutting it will drag germs through the flesh).

Avoid Alcohol

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.

Boost Protein

Your body needs more protein right now to build cells and make hormones for your growing baby. In fact, your protein intake must jump by 10 extra grams per day. Some good protein boosters: 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 Iron

Your iron intake needs to double during pregnancy, since iron helps deliver life-sustaining oxygen to your baby. Trouble is, many women 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.

Don't Gain Too Much Weight

You're eating for two now, but packing on too many pounds 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. Lise 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. To keep your weight healthy, follow these guidelines:

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