In recent years the phrase the “first 1000 days” has become very popular in the pediatric medical community. The first 1000 days, which refers to the period from conception through the first two years of life, is one of the most critical times of brain development of a lifetime. Nourishment during this time may hold one of the most important keys to lifelong health and wellness.
In early 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) Committee on Nutrition issued a policy statement titled “Advocacy for Improving Nutrition in the First 1000 Days To Support Childhood Development and Adult Health.” In the policy statement, experts write this compelling statement about the many of the processes that take place during this critical period.
“Important primary structures and processes that support fundamental behaviors and provide scaffolds for later-developing structures form during this time period. These structures and processes include the sensory systems (especially auditory and visual), the hippocampus (declarative learning and memory), myelination (speed of processing), and the monoamine neurotransmitter systems (affect, reward). Even the prefrontal cortex (planning, attention, inhibition, multitasking) and brain circuits involved in social development have the onset of rapid development in the first 1000 days. Although neurodevelopment continues throughout the life of a healthy person, by age 2 years the brain has undergone tremendous restructuring. Many of the developmental changes expected to occur during this period will not be able to occur in later life.”
The realization that this period is so important can be quite overwhelming for many parents, and for good reason. However, new and expecting parents can make this time a bit less daunting by thinking about it as three main stages: nutrition during pregnancy, breastfeeding if possible, and starting solid foods.
Nutrition during pregnancy
One of the first steps if trying to conceive, or newly pregnant, is to take a prenatal vitamin. Vitamins and minerals like folate, choline, and iron help mom and baby during pregnancy. New recommendations from the AAP also recommend prenatal supplements with additional choline for the growing baby’s neurological development. Choline, folate, and omega-3 fatty acids aid in neurological development. A prenatal diet with a variety of nutrient-rich foods like eggs, salmon, beef, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can aid in meeting the needs of both mom and baby.
Breastfeeding, if possible
The AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first months of life. Breastfeeding has been linked to many health benefits for baby including enhanced neurological development and reduced risk of certain diseases. However, breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally every mom. It can be helpful if families discuss breastfeeding plans and concerns with their pediatrician during pregnancy. This may help new parents set expectations for breastfeeding that may improve the success and duration of providing human milk. It may also help parents develop alternative plans to meet baby’s nutritional needs if breastfeeding isn’t feasible.
Starting solid foods
At or around six months of age, babies are generally developmentally ready to start solid foods. Nutrients of particular concern during this time are iron, zinc, and vitamin D (especially in breastfed infants). Providing baby with nutrient-rich, whole foods can feel like a challenge with a six-month-old. Parents can plan to include first foods like beef, eggs, avocados, and dairy. With a little planning for appropriate texture, baby can share nutritious meals with the whole family.
Before you know it, you’ll be celebrating baby’s 1000th day. Breaking down the stages of nutrition during this time of development can make each phase a little easier to chew.