The Baby Guide: Nutrition for Brain Development
The brain grows and evolves rapidly in the first three years of life. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that has a major role in learning and memory, is in its rapid growth phase for the first 18 months of life. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher levels of thinking such as processing behaviors and multi-tasking, has one of its rapid growth phases in the first 6 months of life. Optimal nutrition in the first years of life is crucial for each area of the brain to continue developing on track!
In the womb, the fetus relies on its mother’s diet for brain growth. After birth, the child’s brain growth depends on the quality of their nutrition. Breast milk provides the optimal nutrients for brain growth, however, formulas provide good nutrition as well. When an infant is developmentally ready to start solid foods at 6 months of age, the nutrients from foods can be complementary to breast milk or formula. Below we’ve listed the most critical nutrients for brain growth and development, and sources of these nutrients, for infants.
Most important nutrients for brain development
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid that plays a huge role in brain development. DHA is vital for normal brain function and contributes to learning and memory. Infants can receive DHA through breast milk (if mom consumes adequate DHA in her diet), formulas fortified with DHA or fish oil supplementation. Low-mercury, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are excellent sources of DHA. Plant sources such as flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil, and walnuts contain DHA but in lower quantities. Avoid seafood high in mercury: swordfish, shark, and king mackerel.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average seafood consumption for children 12–23 months is well below the recommended amount of 3oz/week. This data also shows that the average seafood consumption among lactating women is slightly below the recommended amount of 8oz/week. DHA gets passed through the mother’s breast milk, therefore the mom’s diet while breastfeeding impacts the baby’s DHA levels.
Iron is needed for normal brain development. It’s responsible for the efficient transmission of neurons throughout the brain, and it helps with the function of neurotransmitters and chemical messengers. Research shows that iron deficiency during infancy causes irreversible damage to neural tissue and neurotransmitter function, as well as delays in memory and attention development. Preventing iron deficiency is key. For breastfed infants, the AAP recommends starting an iron supplement around 4 months of age until iron-containing solid foods are introduced after 6 months. We always recommend talking with your healthcare provider before starting any supplements for your baby.
Meat, poultry, and fish are excellent sources of iron and are most easily absorbed; vegetables and legumes are OK sources of iron. Pair eating an iron-containing food with a food or drink high in vitamin C — this enhances the absorption of iron in the body. Formula-fed infants don’t require iron supplementation, as long as their formula is iron-fortified.
Zinc plays a role in all of the main brain functions including cell growth, differentiation, and repair. Research shows that a zinc deficiency early in life is correlated with delays in learning, memory, and attention. Zinc is passed through breast milk, so it’s important that the mother’s diet incorporates zinc. Food sources of zinc include meat, shellfish, beans, nuts, whole grains, fortified cereals, cheeses, and yogurt.
Choline is a mineral that is involved in early brain development, which is why it’s an important micronutrient for infants and toddlers. It primarily helps with brain cell structure and memory processing. The body can only make trace amounts of choline, therefore it primarily comes from the diet. A mother’s breast milk passes on choline from her diet to her baby. Choline is found in beef, chicken, fish, eggs, soybeans, and dairy products.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of all growth in the body including brain development. Many protein sources also contain vitamins and minerals that help with brain development and learning. A severe deficiency in protein and energy (calories) in the first 1000 days of life can result in growth failure and delays in neurodevelopment. Infants who continue to grow along their growth curves are getting enough protein and energy from breast milk and/or formula. For older infants starting solids, protein is found in many foods: meat, fish, soy products (such as tofu), eggs, cheese, yogurt, legumes, avocado, and nuts.
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About the Author
Allisyn Berg is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) who is passionate about sharing credible, science-backed information. She has a special interest in pediatric nutrition & development, and any food involving avocados.
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- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025. 9th Edition. Published December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov
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