If you want a healthy brain, here’s the most reliable way to get it: Choose your parents wisely. After all, what they feed you as a baby – and even what your mom eats before and while you’re in utero – may affect your noggin more than what you feed yourself once you’re capable of doing so.
“We really have to do the first 1,000 days well, or we’ll lose that important platform on which to build cognition, social skills [and] literacy,” says Dr. Robert Murray, professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at Ohio State University. “It’s a huge time.”
How huge? Huge enough to account for the bulk of the growth of myelin, or the fatty coating on nerve cells that helps you think fast, says Dr. Michael Georgieff, a professor of pediatrics and child psychology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. Huge enough to be largely responsible for neurotransmitters involved in self-control and emotion, he continues. And, huge enough to be considered a critical period for the brain’s hippocampus, an important structure for the brain’s learning and memory system, Georgieff says. “If it’s built wrong during its critical period, the effects could last a lifetime.”
Here’s how experts suggest fueling your baby’s brain for the best results – no luck required:
1. Breast-feed if possible.
While both breast milk and formula are engineered (either in mom’s body or in a lab) to give your baby’s brain what it needs, “breast milk is the best thing a baby can get,” Georgieff says. That’s true even if the mom’s diet is crummy, says Jill Castle, a registered dietitian in New Canaan, Connecticut, who specializes in childhood nutrition. “The body is going to create and take the best of what it can to create healthy breast milk,” she says.
And the brain benefits. In a 2013 brain-imaging study out of Brown University, for example, babies who were exclusively breast-fed for at least three months had better brain development by age 2 than those who received formula or a combination of the two. Another earlier study in Denmark found that the longer babies were breast-fed, the higher their IQs as teenagers and young adults.
2. Know your nutrients.
Once you introduce solid foods to your baby at around 6 months, the pressure is on. No longer will breast milk or formula cover your little one’s nutritional bases. Instead, your food selections as a parent are critical. “It’s the kids at [ages] 1 to 3 who really make me nervous because they’re at the mercy of what the parents are eating,” Georgieff says.
Some of the most important nutrients for a baby’s brain at this stage are iron, zinc, copper, iodine, choline, folate and vitamins A, B12 and D. Iron requirements skyrocket for one, in part because the baby’s body and blood volume is growing rapidly, says Castle, who recommends pureed meats and iron-fortified cereals as good sources of the nutrient.
“If it’s an iron-deficient diet, the body is going to use whatever iron it’s getting for blood … and the brain will just not get it,” she adds. That can lead to cognitive and behavioral problems later in life, she says. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends asking your child’s doctor about iron and vitamin D supplements during the first year.
3. Don’t forget the fat and protein.
Health-conscious parents are great; bandwagon-jumping parents are not. In other words, don’t put your baby on a vegan diet or buy him or her low-fat products, Castle says. “We’re such a country focused on healthy eating that oftentimes we’re giving our babies fruits and vegetables, and we’re forgetting that they need fat,” she says.
And boy, do they need fat. In fact, nearly half of their daily calories should come from it, says Castle, who points to avocado, olive oil, cheese, full-fat milk and yogurt and nut butter as great sources. Fish and eggs are also great ways to boost your baby’s intake of DHA – an omega-3 fatty acid important for the retina and development of brain cells, Castle says.
Babies also need protein, Georgieff adds. “When you think about a neuron and how complex it is – it’s [because of] protein scaffolding,” he says. A lack of it “profoundly affects IQ,” he says. Breast milk is a great source of protein, and pureed and shredded meat, eggs and fish are good protein sources once it’s time to add solids, Castle says. “The key is to serve them age-appropriately,” she says, “so they are easy to eat and don’t cause choking.”
4. Broaden the menu.
It used to be that parents gave their babies a single solid food like green beans for a few days before moving on to, say, carrots. But at that rate, their little mouths only try about 30 foods in the first year of life – a detriment to their future health, Castle says. “The more we expose different flavors and foods early on, research shows that the more likely they are to eat healthier and a greater variety of foods later on,” she says. That sets their brains up for a lifetime of healthy fuel.
Variety should also trump quantity, Murray says. “Instead of trying to get volume in, parents should be looking to give the baby every single baby food available eight to 10 times in small servings,” he says. Most parents don’t realize, he says, that a serving of baby food is only a few tablespoons.
Feeding babies a range of tastes and textures also helps build their mouth muscles, which in turn helps them learn how to speak. “When babies get delayed through those stages of food introduction, particularly with textures, they can have delays in their language development,” Castle says. “It’s all tied together.”
5. Play with their food.
It’s not just what babies eat that shapes their brains – it’s how, Murray says, since babies are in a “sensory motor exploratory mode.” For example, they’re learning to use their fingers to point and grab, finding ways to communicate their preferences and engaging all five senses to figure out how what they’re eating today is different from what they ate yesterday. “[The] parents’ job is to encourage that exploration and help them explore novel things – and one of those is food,” Murray says.
To do that, think of mealtime as playtime – airplane spoonful and all, Murray suggests. “If you look at it that way as a parent, you focus less on the mess and more on the fun that the kid is having in learning,” he says.
Even before babies sit in high chairs, moms can promote brain development while breast- or bottle-feeding by responding to their babies in kind when they coo, babble, make faces and gesture. ”That communication piece is fundamental” to developing the amygdala, Murray says, or the part of the brain that will eventually help them plan and use logic. (You’ll appreciate that when they emerge from the emotional “terrible twos.”)
What not to do? Give in to adult distractions like phone calls and dishes, Castle says. “That connection and how responsive you are to feeding and how well you do with introducing a lot of different flavors – even flavors that you might not like yourself – is important,” she says.
6. Don’t give up.
Murray sees the same scenario played out over and over: Parents introduce a food, baby doesn’t like it, parents check it off the list. Parents repeat, baby rejects and baby’s menu gets narrower and narrower. “That’s how you go from a fairly good fruit and vegetable intake as an infant to almost none,” he says.
Truth is, babies’ tastes aren’t developed yet, Castle says. “In the first five years of life, that’s where the palate is sort of formed,” she says. Refusing some foods and loving others in fits and starts is perfectly normal behavior – not necessarily the sign of a picky eater, Murray says. Parents should keep reintroducing the foods, just in different forms (say mashed instead of diced) or cooked in different flavors (try a sweet tang instead of a salty one). “Don’t take anything off the list,” Murray says.
Before the baby’s first birthday, his meal should look a lot like your own – well-balanced and with limited amounts of salt, sugar and trans fats, experts say. And, like an adult diet, there “are no magic bullets” or “superfoods” for babies, Georgieff adds. “If you build a diet with lots of nutrient-rich foods in all five food groups and you keep pushing good food experiences,” Murray says, “they’re going to do fine.”