From their first weeks in the womb through the early years of life, your baby’s brain develops at an astonishing rate. A growing body of research pinpoints key brain nutrients that play an important role during this time. Among them are fats such as ARA/DHA, carbohydrates, folate, iodine, and iron.
1. ARA (arachidonic acid)
What it does: ARA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid in the brain. Fatty acids allow for the production of myelin, a dense substance that insolates and supports neuron connections and allows signals to pass quickly between brain cells. Rapid-fire messaging makes all sorts of cognitive and motor advancements possible, from learning language and understanding abstract concepts to coordinating complex movements.
How your child can get it: Breast milk, formula, and vegetable oils such as sunflower, safflower, and corn. Also, meat, poultry, and eggs contain ARA in small amounts.
2. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
What it does: DHA is a major structural fat in the brain, important for building strong, efficient connections between neurons. Fatty acids like DHA also help the production of myelin similar to ARA.
How your child can get it: Breast milk (levels can vary based on the mother’s diet), formula, and fatty cold-water fish such as salmon, bluefin tuna, black cod, sardines, and herring. Small amounts are also in meat and eggs.
What they do: Carbohydrates from foods like fruit, brown rice, whole grain cereal, bread, and pasta turn into glucose in the body. Glucose is the brain’s main source of energy. Children metabolize glucose quickly, so it’s important they eat regular meals and snack on healthy foods every few hours to maintain a continuous supply. An extended period without food can cause glucose levels to dip, resulting in impaired self-control, difficulty focusing, irritability, fatigue, and other issues.
How your child can get them: Breast milk, formula, whole grains such as breads and cereals, potatoes, corn, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
What it does: Folate is an essential B vitamin during pregnancy, particularly during the first few weeks when the neural tube forms. This is what eventually becomes your baby’s brain and spinal cord, so brain nutrients like these are important. Folate plays a key role in healthy cell formation, growth, and reproduction, and helps build genetic material. It’s important to note that children the U.S. may exceed the recommended intake of folate since many cereals are fortified with folic acid.
How your child can get it: Breast milk, formula, liver, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, oranges, cantaloupe, lean beef, whole grain breads, and fortified grain products like cereal.
What it does: In the womb and during the early months of life, the thyroid plays an important role in the development of your baby’s central nervous system and brain. Iodine is essential for the synthesis of thyroid hormones, directly affecting the brain, as well as the muscles, heart, kidneys, and pituitary gland.
How your child can get it: Breast milk, formula, saltwater fish and other seafood, including seaweed and kelp; iodized salt (table salt fortified with potassium iodide); some processed foods. Although many processed foods are high in salt, it’s typically not iodized salt. Small amounts of iodine can be found in milk, grain products, and eggs.
What it does: Iron is a component of all cells in the body, vital to the formation and healthy function of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the brain and support its growth. Iron can be dangerous when consumed in excess and possibly cause developmental delays. Make sure you consult your doctor before considering a supplement.
How your child can get it: Breast milk, formula, meat, liver, poultry, fish, tofu, legumes, beans, seeds, whole grain breads and cereals, fortified or enriched grain products, and dark green vegetables.
These nutrients, among others, help your baby’s growing brain. Take the time to read more about nutrients for brain development to learn everything you need to know. While they’re an important part of your little one’s development, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before introducing any additional foods or supplements into your baby’s diet.