Brain development during the first few months and years of life has an enormous impact on how a child learns and grows throughout his/her lifetime. Whilst genes are important, it is their environment and experiences that have lifelong effects on a child’s brain development.
The experiences a child has from conception through to three years is the most sensitive period for brain development, building connections that will develop the lifelong skills for self-control, communication, building relationships and problem-solving, in short, how they will survive and flourish in society.
How the brain forms
The brain processes information through the creation of networks of specialised nerve cells, called neurons. Neurons communicate with one another using electrical and chemical signals. These communications, or messages are where memories are formed and we learn. Connections between the neurons are called synapses, and these synapses are made at a faster rate in the first two years of a child’s life than at any other time.
How a child’s brain develops is affected by early experiences. Repeated use strengthens a synapse. So a child’s experiences not only determine what information enters her brain, but also influences how her brain processes information.
For example, the sound of someone speaking stimulates activity in the language-related brain region. The more speech is heard, the more the synapses between the neurons in this region will be activated.
There are some great activities to stimulate growth and learning. Even simple everyday things we do like showing affection, comforting, and playing with children all help build strong healthy brains.
Our founder, Cat, is a huge fan of the American charity Zero to Three, who do some incredible research on children’s development and has great resources on ideas you can do with your little one:
In the UK, we have some brilliant charities focusing on the link between food and the brain.
Nutrition has been called the single greatest environmental influence on babies in the womb and it remains a crucial player in the first years of life.
The Institute for Food, Brain & Behaviour has written up just how important nutrition is in this great article: http://www.ifbb.org.uk/the-developing-brain/why-is-nutrition-so-important-during-the-early-stages-of-life/
A varied balanced diet in the first few years; from introducing solids to transitioning onto family meals, provides the nutrients needed in this critical period of development for all aspects of the body, but particularly the brain.
Nutrients such as iron and iodine are important in cognitive and motor development. There is also research showing how DHA, an essential fatty acid found in oily fish is a needed for synapse development in the early years.
Other nutrients such as choline, folic acid, and zinc, are also key to brain development and have been linked to brain functionality.
Good food sources of key nutrients in brain development
Iodine: fish & dairy
Iron: red meat, pork & poultry, beans, peas, dark green leafy vegetables
Choline: eggs, meat, poultry, fish, dairy
Folic acid: lentils, avocado, dark green leafy vegetables, dried beans, peas, nuts
Zinc: oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood
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Georgieff MK. Nutrition and the developing brain: nutrient priorities and measurement. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007; 85: 614S–620S.
Huttenlocher P. Neural Plasticity: The Effects of the Environment on the Development of the Cerebral Cortex. Harvard University Press; 2002.
Park K, Kersey M, Geppert J, et al. Household food insecurity is a risk factor for iron-deficiency anaemia in a multi-ethnic, low-income sample of infants and toddlers. Public Health Nutrition. 2009; 12: 2120-2128.
Rosales FJ, Reznick JS, Zeisel SH. Understanding the role of nutrition in the brain and behavioral development of toddlers and preschool children: identifying and addressing methodological barriers. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2009; 12(5): 190–202.