The Most Important Nutrients for Your Baby's Brain, According to Doctors

Your child's nutrition in the first two years is absolutely critical for both brain development and future health. Here's what they need.

best nutrients for baby brain development
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The foods your child eats in the first two years of life (and the nutrients they receive during gestation) have a profound effect on their health and development. According to a recent 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 AAP 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, M.D., 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 Dr. 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:

  • Protein: Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, yogurt, beans, grains
  • Zinc: Beef, pork, milk, tofu, kidney beans, peanut butter
  • Copper: Mushrooms, shellfish, whole grains, beans, potatoes
  • Iron: Beef, chicken, fish, fortified cereal, spinach, beans
  • Selenium: Tuna, chicken, enriched pasta, eggs, brown rice
  • Choline: Beef, poultry, eggs, white fish, salmon, lima beans
  • Folate: Spinach, orange juice, enriched rice, avocado, whole wheat bread
  • Iodine: Cod, table salt, milk, shrimp, egg, canned tuna
  • Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, mangoes, eggs, milk
  • Vitamin D: Mushrooms exposed to UV light (check packages), salmon, tuna, milk, fortified non-dairy milks and juice
  • Vitamin K: Spinach, kale, broccoli, green peas, blueberries
  • Vitamin B6: Fortified cereal, chickpeas, bananas, potatoes, peanut butter
  • Vitamin B12: Fortified cereal, salmon, milk, beef, yogurt, cheese
  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids: Fish, canola oil, flaxseed, sunflower oil

Remember that dairy or non-dairy milks are not recommended as primary beverages for children under age 1. Stick with breast milk or formula, although other dairy products like yogurt and cheese are fine. It's also OK to use some milk in cooking or baking.

You can help ensure your child gets the critical nutrients by following these recommendations from Dr. Schwarzenberg:

  • If you're pregnant, take your prenatal supplement as prescribed.
  • Breastfeed if you'd like, especially for the first six months.
  • Begin feeding your baby foods that are rich in iron and zinc, such as pureed meats and fortified baby cereals, when starting solids.
  • Serve plenty of fruits and vegetables during infancy and into the toddler years.
  • Include sources of iron, such as meats and beans, in your toddler's diet.

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.

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