The Importance of Nutrition in the Developing Mind

In the case of a mother's more general nutritional status—her tota caloric intake—the brain is actually less sensitive during the first three to four months of gestation. In spite of its massive developmental changes, the fetus grows surprisingly little in size during this period, so its growth is not very dependent on the mother's diet. (This is probably no accident, since women are often unable to consume many calories because of first-trimester nausea.) Beginning around midway through gestation, however, and continuing until about two years after birth, the brain's growth is highly sensitive to the quantity and quality of nutrition it receives. This sensitive period coincides with the great spurt in synapse development, dendritic growth, and myelination, which together wire up the brain and also greatly increase its total weight. The quality o{ nutrition during this period has a profound impact on a child's future cognitive, emotional, and neurological functions.

Because this sensitive period begins before birth, it means that a mother's diet can shape her baby's brain development. And because it continues throughout infancy and toddlerhood, it means that special attention must be paid to a child's diet during these first two years. Nutritional deficits can be very specific, such as insufficient iodine, iron, or vitamin B12 intake, each of which can permanently alter brain and cognitive development if it continues for any substantial portion of the sensitive period. It is more common. however, for young children to suffer from a generalized nutritional deficiency—too few calories during gestation and early life—that can permanently compromise their brain development. Insufficient nutrition threatens the brain if it occurs at any time during the sensitive period, but is more devastating the earlier in this period it occurs and the longer it lasts, and when the lack of calories is compounded by inadequate protein intake.

The effects of malnutrition have been thoroughly studied in experimental animals, where we have achieved a fairly detailed understanding of the timing and type of nutrients needed for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, plenty of data are also available for human populations. A large proportion of children in the world are undernourished because of famine, poverty, war, and other natural or man-made disasters. It is through studies of such children that we have learned the ways in which inadequate early nutrition can permanently impair brain function. Children who were undemourished as fetuses or infants tend to score lower on IQ tests, perform more poorly in school, have slower language development, exhibit more behavioral problems, and even have difficulties with sensory Integration and fine motor skills, compared with children from the same culture who were adequately nourished. The earlier the malnourishment begins (starting with midpregnancy) and the longer it lasts, the greater will be the resulting problems and the less likely they can be overcome later on. By comparison, adults who undergo even the most extreme starvation do not suffer any intellectual impairment. Thus the brain has a special sensitive period for nutrition in infancy corresponding to the phase of massive synapse growth and axon myelination, both of which require considerable metabolic energy.

Babies of malnourished mothers are small at birth, with correspondingly smaller head sizes than babies well nourished in the womb. Within the normal range, birth weight and head size are only modestly related to later intelligence. But babies in the lowest tenth percentile, whose birth weight is less than four and a half pounds, do have a higher incidence of neurological impairment and mental deficits than larger infants. And malnourished babies are very likely to be in this smallest group.

Birth weight, unlike many traits, is influenced much more by a mother's nutrition than by heredity. Optimally, a pregnant woman should gain about 20 percent of her ideal prepregnancy weight (for example, twenty-six pounds for a 130-pound woman). Bigger is generally better, but there is a limit. (See Figure 17.3.) Babies who are very large at birth are likelier to cause a difficult delivery, and the brain is the organ most vulnerable to damage during a complicated birth. For optimal development a woman needs to consume about 300 extra calories per day during pregnancy, and 500 to 600 extra calories during lactation. It is recommended that many of these additional calories come from protein, which is especially important for brain development; women are advised to consume an extra lo to 12 grams of protein per day during pregnancy and 12 to 15 grams during lactation.


There is a crucial period in fetal development where nutrition is of the utmost importance to the growing brain. If these nutritional needs are not met, then the baby's intelligence may suffer.

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 What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Eliot , Lise (2000-10-03), What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, Bantam, Retrieved on 2011-07-18
Folksonomies: parenting babies development infants physiology


11 AUG 2011

 The Science of Social Welfare

Social Welfare grew from a series of studies that determined children and babies who were malnourished or overly stressed suffered lifetimes of problems behaviorally and economically.