IT’S never too early to tune into infant nutrition especially if you are planning a family, as healthy brain growth in children begins before conception.
For example, folic acid (400mcg) should be taken 14 weeks before you get pregnant, and that’s because folic acid has been linked specifically to early brain functioning.
Three quarters of brain cells are in place by the time a baby is born, the other quarter are in place by their first birthday. By the age of three, children are close to having an adult-sized brain. As children grow, the neurons in the brain continue to develop and grow with them. Poor diet at any age can affect our little ones, hampering their ability to learn and process information, especially if they become low in iron.
Iron is crucial for brain development, and a lack of it can cause adverse effects in toddlers. Protein is also important. During the first two to three months of pregnancy the foetus relies on protein from the mother’s body, rather than from her diet, so having good muscle and protein stores are very important.
Dietician Sarah Keogh emphasises the importance of breastfeeding during the next stage of the baby’s life. “Breastfeeding provides exactly the right amount of protein and other nutrients for a developing baby, especially for brain development. In the past there were differences noted in brain functioning between breastfed and formula-fed babies but a lot has changed since then. Formula now includes DHA, which it didn’t have in the past. The quality of breast milk also depends on the quality of the mother’s diet, so she needs to have good amounts of protein, iodine-rich foods and lots of oil-rich fish as well.”
And then the fussy eating phase begins, and despite parents’ best efforts they become only as good as their last meal. Sarah shares some tips on how to get children to eat nutrient-rich foods with little preparation needed.
“Try chopped-up vegetable sticks and squeeze some lime juice on carrots or cucumber, they love it! Wholegrain crackers with cheese, baby gem leaves and cucumber are great too. Try soups, especially if you let the kids make and blend them. Peanut butter spread on toast is a great source of protein, and eggs are fantastic. A very nutritious, super-quick meal is scrambled eggs and baked beans, and don’t worry about sugar, as a whole tin of baked beans has the same amount of sugar as one apple.”
Children in Ireland are mostly safe from the severe hunger often seen in poor and developing countries. They are more likely to have an unbalanced diet here than go hungry. However, many children live in families that do not have a consistent and dependable supply of healthy food, and this is referred to as social poverty.
In Ireland about 10pc of people (450,000) including both children and adults are living in the food poverty trap. Unfortunately not all children here have access to sufficient and healthy food.
Food insecurity is not the same as hunger. These families are often able to avoid hunger by choosing cheaper, more filling types of food over nutritious foods. Nutritious food is not expensive; it is the lack of knowledge or education, maybe even want, which prevents families cooking their food from scratch. For young children, the result is often a diet that provides inadequate nutrients for normal growth and development.
It’s worrying because in a child’s early years this threatens brain development. International studies show that bad diet has been linked to nutrient deficiencies that lead to learning and development problems, especially among infants and toddlers. Long-term effects include low achievement in school, emotional problems, and poor health.
Bord Bia runs a fantastic educational and trendy food programme in schools called ‘Food Dudes’. It is ultimately designed to enable children to enjoy eating good foods, and to create a healthy eating culture within schools. From five years and up, children taste everything from peppers and carrots to cucumber and lettuce in school and come home enthusiastic about fruit and vegetables. See www.fooddudes.ie.
The Irish Nutrition & Dietetic Institute will run a free healthy attitude to food campaign, from the June 9th to 14th, aimed at providing the general public with free, unbiased, evidence-based information on nutrition. Nourish Ireland week, in Dublin and Cork, will feature a range of specialist talks on everything from weaning your baby to sport nutrition and eating disorders. For tickets see www.eventbright.com.
This article first appeared in Mothers & Babies magazine. To read the supplement online, click here.