The summer holidays are drawing to a close and the heady days of relaxation, sunshine and a lack of structured routine are coming to an end. It's always a bit of a shock to the system when September comes and we are thrust back into early morning's, bedtime routines and of course being a bit more strict with food intake! Whether your child is returning to school or starting there for the first time, the food they eat has a big part to play in how they get through the day. In this blog we look at how nutrition impacts on early brain development and what foods fuel cognitive function.
Early Brain Development
When a baby is born, humans differ to other species in that our brain is still incomplete (it needs to be or the baby’s head would be too big to be born!). This means that from birth onwards there is a phenomenal amount of growth to be done and the majority of this growth takes place in the first three years of life. Our brain will grow to 80-90% of its’ adult size by the age of 3. What makes us human though, is not the size of our brains but the connections within it. It is the forming of these connections during this stage of life that is crucially important.
Babies are born with around the same number of neurons in their brain as an adult (they would have more but they shed excess neurons in utero). Brain growth is determined by the experiences the child has, (positive and negative). Positive sensations and experiences mould learning and behaviour, creating synaptic connections; imagine a tree with branches heading off in all directions yet still all somehow interlinked. Experiences aid neurons to grow more fibres and make more connections, these neurons create chemical signals in our brains that enable us to learn, think, store memories along with moving and controlling our muscles. This all strengthens the child’s ability to learn, play and be content.
Numbers and Connections
To put into context to influence of these neuron connections let’s look at some numbers, babies will have around 2500 neuron communications, a healthy toddler aged 2-3 will have around 15,000 neuron communications (many more than an adult brain). That’s a huge increase and the most influential ways to increase these neuron connections is positivity. Continuous, positive reinforcement via smiles, praise, encouragement and enthusiasm all motivate a child to feel safe to grow. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said for negativity and traumatic experiences within this crucial period of development.
The time period before the age of 3 is really critical as the number of neurons we have in our cerebral cortex will not change with age but the connections (fibres and synapse) do. These connections reach their peak at age 3 after this point any connections not utilised are pruned away, remember the analogy of the branches of a tree?
Early life experiences are, of course incredibly important to the positive forming of connections, babies learn and develop when they feel safe hence why constant positive reinforcement is so important but it isn’t just about the experiences we encounter in the very early years. Nutrition, what feeds the developing brain is just as important. All of that growth takes a lot of energy and with nutrition it isn’t just the quantity of energy (food) that is important but the quality (type).
Nutrition to feed a rapidly growing brain
Human brains take a very long time to grow into a fully mature adult brain and all of that growth and development takes a lot of feeding. During childhood when the brain is undergoing its’ rapid growth 50% of the total energy intake goes to feeding the brain, this reduces to just 20% of total energy intake in an adult. If we consider that thinking alone can utilise around 300 calories each day it’s clear to see how building a brain can use so much energy. What does it take to build a brain and how can we feed it to support the pace of growth required?
Nutrients that build a brain
Childhood development depends on the energy and nutrients provided to the brain at this crucial time of life, formative nutrition is so important that what we eat at this point in our lives can impact on future eating habits, future health and even IQ. There are many nutritional considerations for growth and development but if I had to pick my top brain foods it would be these: -
Eggs are a great source of Phospholipids – these are carriers of Omega 3 fatty acids and can help with learning and cognitive development.
Eggs are a great source of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) one of 4 Essential Fatty Acids which make up 40% of our brain and are crucially important for intelligence, mood and behaviour. When the frontal lobe is rich in DHA it helps with problem solving, attention and planning skills, all things babies need to cope with each day!
A great way to get Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s), fish consists of; AA (Arachidonic Acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic Acid). These 4 fats make up 40% of our brains-so they are crucial for building a brain but a deficiency in these EFAs will have a negative impact on mood, IQ and behaviour.
Fish is also a good source of Omega 3 (ALA) – needed for brain growth and development and Phospholipids – a deficiency in these may manifest as struggling with concentration and attention and showing difficulty grasping new tasks and concepts, again, grasping new concepts is something babies and toddlers are faced with multiple times each day – everything is new to them!
General tips to include healthy fats such as EFA's and Omega 3's
Oily fish such as salmon
Nuts and seeds (obviously be careful as these are an allergy and choking risk)
Plant oils such as flaxseed
Avocados and Tuna are great sources of Omega 3 but not considered an EFA they should still be included in a healthy balanced diet.
It’s worth mentioning that it is possible to get some sources of EFA’s from a vegetarian and vegan diet though it is more difficult and requires more planning and potentially supplementation. This is particularly troublesome as many of the vegan sources of EFA’s would be nuts and seeds which are not the best foods for babies and toddlers! If no known allergens are identified they still present a choking risk.
Other Nutritional Factors
Along with EFA’s there’s a host of other nutritional influences to consider in particular relevance to brain function, the following vitamins and minerals are some examples of those which support concentration, focus, learning and memory: -
Iodine – this is stimulating to brain tissue and appears in dishes containing sea food, eggs and dairy.
Zinc – Builds polyunsaturated fatty acids which are essential for brain formation and function – appears in dishes containing meat, fish and cheese
Vitamin C – has many roles in the body including being needed to make acetylcholine a brain chemical involved in memory – appears in most of our dishes!
B vitamins – we aim to choose starchy carbohydrates which are complete with B vitamins. These vitamins are also needed to make acetylcholine a brain chemical involved in memory. They have a big role in energy regulation and stable blood sugar is key to concentration!
Ensuring age-appropriate amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates are provided to promote naturally feeling full and satisfied from foods without fluctuating blood sugar levels. Dips in blood sugar can have a huge impact on a child’s mood, whether they can feel content and their ability to grasp new concepts.
High sugar foods, processed foods and/or artificial ingredients including artificial sweeteners can have a negative impact on a child’s mood, attention and energy along with adversely affecting their palate development.
Consider a child having a breakfast full of sugar and/or additives then being expected to sit through a morning of learning, potentially having to sit still and concentrate. The factors happening to them biologically do not support them being expected to sit still and concentrate! They will be experiencing the blood sugar high making them more fidgety and distracted followed by the crash which is most often accompanied by a dip in mood and feeling hungry again as the energy becomes depleted. All of these things happening in their body will be at odds with the expectations of them. Often this leads to children being labelled as disruptive, fidgety, lacking in concentration etc when really they are just reacting to the biology.
Deficiencies & Learning
We can avoid the foods that hinder concentration, as outlined in the sugary breakfast cereal above but it's not just what we eat but potentially what we might be missing. Nutritional deficiencies can manifest as physical and behavioural characteristics. Children can quickly become disengaged if things feel too complicated and this can lead to not only frustration, upset, anxiety in the short term but can also potentially lead them to a long-term dislike of learning environments.
We all know that each child develops differently and at their own pace, and there’s much more to a child than their academic performance, but unfortunately once children reach any educational setting, they begin to have expectations against set milestones put in place for them. However, prior to starting any formal academic journey the neural connections have, largely, already been established, hence the ‘window of opportunity’ in the early years.
The food the child eats significantly influences how they are able to think, concentrate, remember, learn, feel and even behave.
Early Years Nutrition Consultant
Food & Health Writer
Presenter on Early Years TV Food