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One Thousand Days: The Role of Nutrition in Brain Development

The nutrients children receive during the first 1,000 days of their lives — or from conception until their second birthday — have a significant impact on how they develop into young adults. Research from leading health and medical organizations shows that nutrition during this time frame can affect a child’s ability to learn, grow and prosper.

Further, malnutrition can be life-threatening for children under the age of two. Malnutrition weakens a child’s immune system, making them more susceptible to death from illnesses including pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria.

It’s difficult to determine how many children in the United States are malnourished, but the statistics are bleak. According to Feeding America, 1 in 7 people in the U.S. face hunger every year. The rates of hunger in children are even higher, with about 1 in 5 lacking proper access to food at some point during the year. There are many ways new and expecting mothers can promote their child’s health and wellbeing during the first 1,000 days. Here are three areas the AAP advises families to focus on:

1. Preparing

It’s critical that pregnant women and young children have access to foods that provide sufficient amounts of brain-building nutrients, including protein, zinc, iron, choline, folate, iodine, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamins A, D, B6 and B12. Prenatal vitamins provide mothers and growing babies with key nutrients, including folic acid, which helps a baby’s brain and spinal cord develop properly; calcium, which protects a mother’s bones as the baby grows; and iron, which helps the blood deliver oxygen to the baby.

2. Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding provides growing babies with nutrients, growth factors, and types of cells that are missing in infant formula. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests breastfeeding exclusively until six months of age and continuing after solids are introduced for the first year. If a mother isn’t breastfeeding, an approved infant formula can supply the nutrients growing babies need for healthy brain development.

3. Communicating

Health care providers can act as lifelines for new parents. Pediatricians have a multitude of resources available to help families make smart nutrition choices for a child’s developing brain. And because healthy foods can often be costly, a pediatrician may be able to recommend local assistance programs.

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