Building a Brain– What Goes on Between Birth and 3?
Louise Mercieca is an Award-winning Nutritional Therapist and author, primarily in the areas of Early Years and preventative nutrition.
Early years nutritionist Louise Mercieca explores what nutrients and foods the infant brain requires, and what nutrients are critical in early brain development.
The human body is amazing but I particularly find the rapid rate of change, growth and development that takes place between birth and the age of 3 quite frankly, astonishing! At no other point in our lives will our bodies do so much in such a short space of time and what is really interesting, is the potential impact that development at this age has on the rest of our lives.
When a baby is born, humans differ to other species in that our brain is still incomplete (it needs to be or the baby’s head would be too big to be born!). This means that from birth onwards there is a phenomenal amount of growth to be done and the majority of this growth takes place in the first three years of life. Our brain will grow to 80-90% of its’ adult size by the age of 3. What makes us human though, is not the size of our brains but the connections within it. It is the forming of these connections during this stage of life that is crucially important.
Babies are born with around the same number of neurons in their brain as an adult (they would have more but they shed excess neurons in utero). Brain growth is determined by the experiences the child has, positive and negative. Positive sensations and experiences mould learning and behaviour, creating synaptic connections; imagine a tree with branches heading off in all directions yet still all somehow interlinked. Experiences aid neurons to grow more fibres and make more connections, these neurons create chemical signals in our brains that enable us to learn, think, store memories along with moving and controlling our muscles. This all strengthens the child’s ability to learn, play and be content.
Numbers and Connections
To put into context to influence of these neuron connections let’s look at some numbers, babies will have around 2500 neuron communications, a healthy toddler aged 2-3 will have around 15,000 neuron communications (many more than an adult brain). That’s a huge increase and the most influential ways to increase these neuron connections is positivity. Continuous, positive reinforcement via smiles, praise, encouragement and enthusiasm all motivate a child to feel safe to grow. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said for negativity and traumatic experiences within this crucial period of development.
The time period before the age of 3 is really critical as the number of neurons we have in our cerebral cortex will not change with age but the connections (fibres and synapse) do. These connections reach their peak at age 3 after this point any connections not utilised are pruned away, remember the analogy of the branches of a tree?
Early life experiences are, of course, incredibly important to the positive forming of connections. Babies learn and develop when they feel safe hence why constant positive reinforcement is so important, but it isn’t just about the experiences we encounter in the very early years. Nutrition, what feeds the developing brain, is just as important. All of that growth takes a lot of energy; with nutrition it isn’t just the quantity of energy (food) that is important but the quality (type).
Nutrition to feed a rapidly growing brain
Human brains take a very long time to grow into a fully mature adult brain and all of that growth and development takes a lot of feeding. During childhood when the brain is undergoing its’ rapid growth 50% of the total energy intake goes to feeding the brain, this reduces to just 20% of total energy intake in an adult. If we consider that thinking alone can utilise around 300 calories each day it’s clear to see how building a brain can use so much energy. What does it take to build a brain and how can we feed it to support the pace of growth required?
Nutrients that build a brain
Childhood development depends on the energy and nutrients provided to the brain at this crucial time of life, formative nutrition is so important that what we eat at this point in our lives can impact on future eating habits, future health and even IQ. There are many nutritional considerations for growth and development but if I had to pick my top brain foods it would be these:
Eggs are a great source of Phospholipids – these are carriers of Omega 3 fatty acids and can help with learning and cognitive development
Eggs are a great source of DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) one of 4 Essential Fatty Acids which make up 40% of our brain and are crucially important for intelligence, mood and behaviour. When the frontal lobe is rich in DHA it helps with problem solving, attention and planning skills, all things babies need to cope with each day!
A great way to get Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s), fish consists of; AA (Arachidonic Acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid), DGLA (Dihomo-gamma-linolenic Acid). These 4 fats make up 40% of our brains-so they are crucial for building a brain but a deficiency in these EFAs will have a negative impact on mood, IQ and behaviour.
Fish is also a good source of Omega 3 (ALA) – needed for brain growth and development and Phospholipids – a deficiency in these may manifest as struggling with concentration and attention and showing difficulty grasping new tasks and concepts, again, grasping new concepts is something babies and toddlers are faced with multiple times each day – everything is new to them!
It’s worth mentioning that it is possible to get some sources of EFA’s from a vegetarian and vegan diet though it is more difficult and requires more planning and potentially supplementation. This is particularly troublesome as many of the vegan sources of EFA’s would be nuts and seeds which are not the best foods for babies and toddlers! If no known allergens are identified they still present a choking risk.
General Nutritional Considerations
Many nutrients will support cognitive function and memory. Here’s just a few examples with the food sources: -
As ever with nutritional intake there are foods that support us and foods that don’t! My general advice for the very young is to try to avoid trans-fats (an artificially manufactured fat) and too much sugar! Both of these will be present in processed foods but not only do they interfere with the absorption of nutrients they can create a preference for these foods due to their highly palatable nature.