So much is going on in the first few months of a baby’s life, it’s no surprise that what a baby eats can have an effect on how important structures and connections in the brain develop. To help parents understand what babies need, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a set of recommendations for foods that ensure healthy brain development in babies’ first 1,000 days.
In the guidelines, just published in the journal Pediatrics, the AAP’s Committee on Nutrition say that certain nutrients, including protein, zinc, iron, folate, certain vitamins and polyunsaturated fatty acids are critical for healthy brain development. Diets lacking these nutrients can lead to lifelong issues in brain function, they note.
Dr. Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and member of the AAP Committee on Nutrition, says that breast milk is recommended for newborns until they are about six months old. After that, she says, breast milk can’t provide the amount of iron and zinc that growing babies need, so breast milk should be supplemented with these nutrients if moms want to continue breastfeeding, or babies should be introduced to foods rich in them. Many baby foods are supplemented with zinc and iron, she says, but pureed meats are also a good natural source. Infant cereals are also enriched with these nutrients and could be good first foods for babies.
MORE: How You Can Tell if Your Breastfed Baby Is Eating Enough
After breast milk, the best diet for babies is one that includes a variety of foods, including meats rich in proteins and fruits and vegetables that contain different vitamins and minerals.
“Infants are very vulnerable in the first few months of life to [nutrient] deficiencies,” says Schwarzenberg. “Their brains are developing at a rapid pace between one and two years, so we want pediatricians to be recommending a healthy spectrum of foods and not simply telling parents to give their babies certain foods. We want to make a positive statement about providing lean meats and fruits and vegetables, and also push back on the idea of superfoods.” No single food can provide babies with the variety of nutrients they need, she says.
Studies show that early nutrition is important for building a healthy brain. “If you miss the opportunity to meet developmental milestones during the first 1,000 days of life, then there’s not an opportunity to go back and revisit them,” says Schwarzenberg. Iron, for example, is critical for setting up memory circuits and processing speed in the brain that can’t necessarily be recreated later.
While it’s easier to feed babies their favorite foods, she says it’s important to make sure they’re eating a range of healthy foods. “We all have a tendency to pick one or two things the child likes and not stray too much from them,” says Schwarzenberg. “But if you are really looking to developing good brain health, then you really have to look at a variety of foods.”
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