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The First Thousand Days of Nutrition and Why It’s Important

While 1,000 days may seem like a long time, it’s a critical period in your child’s development. From the time you conceive to your child’s second birthday, the nutrition you and your child receive is vitally important in determining good health, both now and in your child’s future.

Read on to learn more about the “first 1,000 days” and how your child’s diet in their first two years of life impacts their future development.

What is the first 1,000 days?

The first 1,000 days begins at conception to 2 years of age (or 24 months) when your child’s brain, body and immune system grow and develop significantly. Incredibly, your child’s brain will double in size in the first year of life and reach 90% of adult size by kindergarten.

The way your child’s brain evolves and adapts to their environment contributes to the sort of person they will grow up into. The right diet or nutrition during pregnancy and early childhood will help your child’s learning, physical skills and emotions to develop properly.

“Key nutrients are required throughout pregnancy and postnatal to ensure proper growth and development,” said Christina Valentine, MD, medical director of the perinatal nutrition program and neonatologist with Banner Children's. “Astonishingly, if there are gaps, this can result in developmental and cognitive problems but also impact psychiatric health.”

Being hungry or exposed to stress during the first 1,000 days can have a lifelong effect on their physical health later in life, including high blood pressure and heart disease. “Poverty, safety and substance abuse in infancy can also interfere with a child’s growth,” Dr. Valentine said.

On the other hand, if your child receives too much of the wrong foods or nutrition in the first 1,000 days, this can also contribute to lifelong issues, such as weight issues, diabetes or heart problems.

What nutrients are critical to my child’s development?

To ensure your child receives enough calories, proteins and nutrients – both in utero and early in childhood – here are some critical nutrients:

  • Vitamin A: supports your child’s cells, major organs and vision
  • B vitamins: supports your child’s brain, development, digestion and nervous system
  • Vitamin K: provides protection against bleeding
  • Choline: helps prevent birth defects and supports brain development
  • Specific fats (long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid or DHA): the right kinds of fat aid in brain development, immunity and vision
  • Glucose: supports your child’s metabolism and growth
  • Protein: supports your child’s tissues and organs, but especially their brain
  • Zinc: supports cell growth, brain development and immune system
  • Copper: helps your child’s heart, blood vessels, skeletal and nervous systems
  • Iron: assists with brain development and lowers risk for cognitive effects, such as learning disabilities, but gaps have also has been associated with depression and autism
  • Selenium: supports health and development of your child in utero
  • Iodine: supports brain development

How to get nutrients pre-pregnancy and pregnancy

“A healthy baby starts with a healthy parent, so talk to your health care provider and get early prenatal care,” Dr. Valentine said. Your lifestyle habits, diet and physical and mental well-being all have an effect on the long-term health of your child.

Important nutrients you should be focused on through diet and supplements are:
  • Vitamin A
  • Beta carotenoids
  • B vitamins: folic acid, thiamin, riboflavin, B6 and B12
  • Choline
  • Vitamin D
  • DHA
  • Iodine
  • Iron

[Also read “What Foods to Eat and Avoid During Pregnancy.”]

How to get nutrients during infancy

If you can, breastfeed. Breast milk provides unparalleled benefits when it comes to your child’s brain development and lifelong health benefits. It can help build your little one’s immunity, lower their risk for disease and give them the best start. Dr Valentine recommends seeking out nutrient dense foods and supplements- human milk composition depends on additional nutrients from the diet including:

Important nutrients you should be focused on through diet and supplements are:
  • Vitamin A
  • Beta carotenoids
  • B Vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, B6, B12
  • Choline
  • Vitamin D
  • DHA
  • Inositol
  • Iodine

If your unable to breastfeed or can’t breastfeed, have no fear. Formula-fed babies can still get proper nutrition during the first 1,000 days with iron-fortified infant formula.

How to get nutrients during early childhood

Complementary feeding of a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, single grains and protein-rich and iron-rich foods is recommended around 4 to 6 months of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the United States Department of Agriculture recommend introducing common allergens, like eggs, wheat and nuts during this time as it can help guide your child’s immune system by training to recognize potentially allergenic foods as safe.

“Introducing your child to a variety of foods, tastes and textures is an important step in building a more adventurous eater,” Dr. Valentine said. “However, nuts should be safely consumed when advised by your health care provider because they can be a choking hazard.”

Here is a list of key nutrients you should focus on along with food suggestions:

  • Vitamin A: cooked dark green leafy spinach or kale, dark red, orange, yellow veggies, peppers, sweet potatoes, carrots and squash
  • B vitamins: fortified bread and cereals
  • Choline: collard greens, Brussel sprouts, shrimp and scallops
  • Vitamin D: dairy or supplement
  • DHA: eggs, fish sources or supplement
  • Iodine: dairy, tuna, shrimp, eggs, iodized table salt
  • Iron: dark meats, strained meats or supplement
  • Selenium: tuna, shrimp, turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, brown rice, eggs, bread and baked beans
  • Zinc: meats, chickpeas, baked beans, yogurt and oatmeal

For tips on how to introduce foods, check out, “When Can My Baby Start Eating Solid Foods? Tips from an Expert.”

Bottom line

Good nutrition during the first 1,000 days is an opportunity to set your child up for a healthy, fulfilling future.

To ensure the best possible future for your baby:

  • Eat a healthy diet and receive proper prenatal care during pregnancy
  • Breastfeed or pump human milk, if possible
  • Make sure your baby has a healthy diet
  • Attend all scheduled well-child visits

In addition to good nutrition, make sure to give your baby lots of love and attention so they feel secure; reading and singing to your baby are great examples of special activities to enjoy together.

If you have any additional questions on your child’s nutritional needs and development, talk to your health care provider or your child’s pediatrician.

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