This week we are focusing on the role of good nutrition in brain development. Nutrition is one of the key factors that can affect your child’s brain development. The proper nourishment helps your child learn important skills, like language acquisition and problem solving. Good food also gives your child the energy and motivation to play, which is important because play is how your child learns to roll, crawl, walk, and run - all major milestones. Here are some suggestions about what to feed to your child, when to feed your child, and how much.
Your Baby/Toddler (Birth to 36 months):
Your baby has been depending on you for nutrition since conception. Even before you could hold your baby, what you ate and how you lived affected how your child’s brain and body was developing. Now, as your child grows from newborn into toddlerhood, nutrition is still very important as your child’s brain is experiencing and learning new things every single day.
- Breastfeeding is best when you can do it, and for good reason. The developing brain consumes the most calories of all organs. The brain is growing rapidly, forming over 700 synapse connections per second in the first year. For adults, our brains use about 20% of our total calories. In young children the brain uses nearly 50% of the calories. Breast milk naturally contains all of the fats and nutrients that are necessary for your baby to thrive. The natural fats and chemicals that are present in breast milk cannot be provided with a formula only diet- and breast milk is free. However, it does require that the mother receive proper nutrition on a consistent basis as well.
- Babies and young children should eat when they are hungry. Crying is actually a late sign of hunger. Your baby might first suck on his fingers or start to get fidgety. Every baby or toddler will have a different way to let you know he’s hungry. Be sure to have healthy snacks and drinks on hand throughout the day so when hunger strikes you can provide something nutritious – and not have to run to the nearest fast food.
- Kids will eat when they are hungry. Just because you’ve made them lunch doesn’t mean they’ll always sit down to eat it. Young kids can tend to be “grazers”. Allowing your child to eat when she is hungry, as much or as little as she wants to be satisfied, will help her develop healthy attitudes towards food and eating and teach her to listen to her body.
- Having a newborn or a toddler does not leave much time for cooking and being creative with meals. Try mapping out each week with a meal plan. When you shop, you will spend less money, buy only the food you need, and save yourself the stress of “what are we going to eat tonight?” Post your meal plan where everyone can see, so that whoever comes home first can start cooking.
- Be mindful of the Nutritional Facts label when shopping. Try to purchase items that are high in fibre, and low in sugar and salt. Food items that are low in fibre and have a high sugar and salt content provide no lasting nutritional value to you or your child. They will leave you both still feeling hungry, and in the long run, may contribute to developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure). Fresh or frozen veggies and whole foods always have greater nutritional value over prepared foods – they don’t even need nutritional labels because they’re all GOOD.
Your Preschooler (36 months to 48 months):
Your preschooler is now able to tell you the kinds of food he likes and dislikes (but he still has to eat his greens!). Include your child in going to the grocery store and let him be your special helper in the kitchen. Be patient, he is likely to make a bit of a mess, but this is valuable time together to build a healthy relationship to each other as well as a healthy attitude towards food.
- While your child may no longer be breastfeeding or drinking formula, milk and milk products are still important for your child’s brain development. About 2 cups a day is enough. Too much milk can deplete iron stores and too little iron in the blood can affect brain development. High fat content in homogenized milk is still recommended at this age. Try to steer clear of high sugar fruit drinks, and provide water instead.
- Your child is now at the age where she may be attending daycare or school. Make sure you send your child off with a good breakfast. Most child care centres will provide a morning snack, but your child needs a proper breakfast in order to be ready and motivated to learn.
- While your child is growing, his appetite is still small. Your child requires several small meals throughout the day to keep him going. Trust your child’s appetite.
- Meal sharing is another way to help with the stresses of providing meals every day. Connect with family, friends or neighbours and agree to make 1 meal that can feed 2 families. When you do this, you only have to create 1 meal, but because you shared with another family, you have 2 meals. This also works if you make larger meals, but only use what you need and freeze the rest for another meal time.
Want more tips? Read all of the tips from our partnership with Infant Mental Health Promotion at SickKids.