Pregnancy is a time when the mother-to-be is encouraged to eat nutritious food for the healthy overall development of the baby. However, it is not just the physical development that is important. Baby IQ development is less focussed on as an objective, but one that is critical too. The time frame between conception to 2 years of age is when the maximum baby brain development happens. Thus it is critical that both the pregnant mother and the infant and toddler receive the best and the right kind of nutrition.
In recent years DHA has found a special place in the health food supplements rack. While DHA is not new to us – a famous brand of cod liver oil was given to most of us in our childhood, it is being seen as crucial nutrition for expectant moms and old people alike. The reason being that DHA has a direct impact on the development of brain power & proper functioning of the brain.
Just why is baby IQ development important?
It’s not like we are aiming at creating little Einsteins or Newtons. I mean, yes why not? But building brain capacity has a lot more to do with allowing the brain to develop to its maximum potential. Just like you would consume protein and such nutrients in order to build a healthy body, it is important to provide precious brain fuel to ensure the baby is born with a brain that is well equipped with all the right power.
And it’s not just brain development. DHA also contributes to normal eye & nervous system development in babies. While the health of these body systems may not always be visible to the naked eye, they are critical in ensuring the body is functioning to the best of its ability and capacity. They are the foundations of a healthy human body.
Feeding brain fuel
Nutritionists will tell you that nutrients like protein, energy, healthy fats (DHA), iron, zinc, copper, iodine, selenium, vitamin A, choline, taurine, lutein and folate are necessary for brain development.
DHA or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are potent neurobiological agents that affect neuronal membrane structure, synaptogenesis, and myelination. (Ref: AJCN) Altogether this contributes to a brain which is well developed and functions to the best of its ability.
But just how can we include this seemingly endless list of nutrients in the food intake of a toddler or baby for that matter?
Brain nutrition from birth to 6 months
As is prevalent today, breastmilk or formula is the primary nutrition for infants up to the age of 6 months. Is it possible then to send vital brain food to the little babies?
The answer to that is a resounding yes. DHA from the mother’s diet does pass on to her baby via breastmilk. Therefore it is equally important that the mother should consciously include DHA and other nutrient-rich foods in her diet.
However, as I have spoken in some of my earlier blogs too (Read – Milk sensitivities in infants) not all children have the blessing of being able to receive or consume mother’s milk. But thanks to modern medicine and research, infant formula provides them with valuable food for life. And this formula is fortified with the essential DHA.
A glance at the nutritional information on a tin of formula will reassure you that formula milk for infants contains all the required DHAs, vitamins, minerals required for healthy baby IQ development. In fact, studies show that formula in pre-term infants is vital for bringing them up to speed with “retinal and cognitive development, as indexed by improved electroretinogram activity, visual acuity,” (Ref: AJCN)
6 months to 1 year – weaning foods
Weaning foods are now introduced after the baby has turned 6 months old. The parent/ caregiver has many methods at her disposal to introduce baby to the rich world of food and nutrition.
This is the time that babies should be introduced to a wide variety of foods – fruits, vegetables, nuts and meats if you consume them. Keeping in mind the possible allergens and introducing them gradually, all foods should be offered to babies within the first year of their life.
And while doing so the caregiver can plan baby food more mindfully, for example, ensuring that baby food contains healthy fats, is low in sodium, sugars and trans fats. Balance and complementary foods should be introduced together so that nutrient intake is maximised. Nutrition goals such as baby IQ development can be consciously worked towards.
Most DHA comes from animal sources like fish oils and fatty fishes. The richest fish sources of DHA are salmon, mackerel, sardines and rainbow trout. Fish like mackerel and sardines are commonly found in Indian fish markets too.
Plant-based sources of Omega 3 also exist and the body is capable of partially converting these to DHA. Sources most abundant are flaxseeds, walnuts, kale, and soybean oil.
Once again formula for older babies (6 months+) is available and is fortified to provide the valuable DHA and other nutrients to growing babies.
It is important to remember that weaning does not mean a total breaking of the milk drinking habit/ need in babies. Weaning should be seen as an opportunity to introduce babies to the rich world of foods around them and build a curiosity to eat a healthy and nutritious variety of foods.
Making healthy eating a habit – 1 to 2 years
Baby development after the first year of life is more about a slowing down of pace in terms of height or weight. Instead, it is the turn of child cognition, skills like speaking, walking and other physical milestones. Difficult times like the cutting of molar teeth are also common in the early part of the second year.
Most babies see a temporary or extended drop in appetites in this stage. Feeding vital food that is necessary for child’s IQ development becomes a challenge at such times. Parents and caregivers then should make use of every available opportunity to offer wholesome and nutrient-dense foods to their toddlers.
While it is recommended to give natural, fresh and healthy foods to the child, the importance of fortified foods in the form of ready to eat/ cook cereals, packaged fruit juices, bread flours, eggs, nut butter/ oils and other children’s foods must also feature in the diet of children. Boosting the value of food while cooking by using ingredients like flax seed powder, superfoods like millets, healthy oils like coconut/ soya/ safflower oil can also be done.
Most often having a child also means a change in the eating habits and patterns of adults in the household too. And this is only a welcome change in the lives of new age parents.
New research – Natural Vitamin E
Advanced studies today tell us that DHA consumption has to be coupled with Natural vitamin E to have the best impact.
The co-existence of natural vitamin E and DHA for baby brain development is necessary as it aids the brain to produce more powerful connections in brain cells than what DHA can do on its own. Vitamin E in infants also prevents any oxidative damage of DHA. This ensures that the DHA is protected from damage, which in turn keeps the cognitive or brain development of the baby intact.
For infants below 6 months for whom solid foods have not yet been introduced the breastfeeding mother can ensure there are DHA and natural vitamin E in her own diet. The goodness will pass on to the baby via breastmilk.
For formula fed babies the good news is that now infant formula recognises the need for this combination of DHA and natural vitamin E too. Products like Similac IQ+ contain the valuable combination of DHA and natural vitamin E.
For kids who are consuming solid foods natural vitamin E can come from:
- Oils like Safflower, Sunflower, Almond
- Fruits like Mango, Kiwi fruit, Papaya, Olives
- Veggies like Spinach, Broccoli, Turnip greens, mustard greens (sarson), red sweet pepper,
- Nuts like Almond, Pine Nuts (chilkoza), Peanuts
- Seeds like sunflower seeds, sesame
- Animal sources like Atlantic Salmon, shrimps, trout, fish roe, lobster
As with most foods, natural vitamin E is more potent and beneficial for baby IQ development. On a nutritional information label, natural vitamin E is listed as d-alpha tocopherol, d-alpha tocopheryl acetate, or d-alpha tocopheryl succinate. Synthetic forms of vitamin E are labelled with a dl- prefix. (Ref – Chiro)
While it is common to determine a baby’s health through physical statistics like height, weight, one should keep in mind that it is vital to keep boosting their brain development. Baby IQ development is critical in the first two years of their life. The opportunity to boost brain power at this stage must not be undermined. DHA and natural vitamin E are key elements of the nutrition for baby brain development. Conscious efforts must be made to include them in baby and toddler diets.