The foods your child eats in the first two years of life (and the nutrients he receives during gestation) have a profound effect on his health and development. According to a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are certain nutrients that are especially critical—and missing out on them can have lifelong consequences. These nutrients include iron, zinc, copper, choline, and Vitamin D.
Not only can early nutrition influence the risks for developing obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes in childhood and adulthood, but the first two years are the most crucial time of a person's life for brain development, including in areas that control memory, processing, planning, and attention. According to the statement, missing out on key nutrients can lead to deficits in brain function that can't be reversed. In fact, inadequate nutrition during the first two years is linked to lower IQ, behavior problems, and less success at school.
"The research in this area is becoming overwhelming," says Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, MD, a professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and one of the paper's lead authors. "We really can improve the health of children long term by paying attention to nutrition early in life."
Children who live with food insecurity are most at risk for missing out, but even those who don't may fall behind, says Schwarzenberg. For example, many breastfed infants over six months of age don't get adequate zinc, iron, and vitamin D. (Formula is fortified.) So making sure babies get these nutrients via solid foods is key.
The statement identifies these nutrients as particularly important for early brain development. Here's where you can find them in solid foods:
Remember that dairy or non-dairy milks are not recommended as primary beverages for children under age 1. Stick with breastmilk or formula, although other dairy products like yogurt and cheese are fine. It's also okay to use some milk in cooking or baking.
You can help ensure your child gets the critical nutrients by following these recommendations from Schwarzenberg:
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.