Jane Baham & Rosalyn Ford




Good Nutrition at the centre of a child’s brain development

What goes in from conception to 2 years determines a child’s future – the window of opportunity The wonders of brain development[1],[2]

A child’s future is largely determined during a unique window of opportunity - the first 1,000 days, from conception until their second birthday. Nutritional deficiencies during this window will have a profound effect on the child’s future.

  • Growth of the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) of a foetus begins to develop by the fifth week of pregnancy.
  • The structure from which the brain and spinal cord form (neural tube) should close by the sixth week.
  • At about 13 weeks, the brain looks like a smooth coffee bean.
  • The fastest and most significant changes in brain development occur in the last 3 months of pregnancy, and during the first year of life. 
  • The foetal brain goes through rapid development in the final 3 months of pregnancy - 260%.  
  • Between weeks 24 and 42 of the pregnancy, the developing brain is particularly vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies because of the rapid growth of several neurologic processes. Yet, the young brain is remarkably adaptable and therefore more able to be repaired after it receives the correct nutrients.
  • After birth, the brain grows a further 175% till the age of one year. The new-born brain continues to add neurons over the first few years. It doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it reaches 80% of its adult volume[3],[4].

Food just helps a child survive. Nutrition helps the child thrive... 

The role of nutrition in brain development is complex. The brain’s need for a particular nutrient, changes throughout its development. The effects of most nutrient shortages depend on the amount and duration of the shortage - early shortages can reduce cell production while later shortages can affect cell size and complexity. Nutrient deficits also negatively affect the complex chemical processes of the brain and can lead to less efficient communication between brain cells. Most importantly, these deficiencies influence not only the child’s future but also the family’s and the development of the community – keeping then trapped in the poverty cycle.

  • If a child doesn’t get the right nutrition, they are up to 12 times more likely to die in their first five years of life, mostly due to common infections that could easily be prevented[1].
  • Children can lose ten to fifteen IQ points because they do not receive the right nutrients and care in their first 1,000 days of life[2].
  • Malnourished children’s maths results are 7% lower than others and are 19% less likely to be able to read at 8 years of age.
  • Well-nourished children are 13% more likely to be in the correct grade at school[3]. 
  • Children who get the right nutrition in the 1st 1000 days earn 21% more as adults[4].
  • Undernourished mothers are more likely to have undernourished babies, perpetuating a cycle of poverty that is passed down across generations.

Nutrition at the core of optimum brain development

The right nutrition in the first 1,000 days will serve a child for its lifetime. The effects of poor nutrition after the first 1,000 days are largely irreversible. By right nutrition we don’t mean enough. Enough is often not enough. The quality of food is the determinant.

Good nutrition is not just food. A child can be well fed but undernourished.

Good nutrition is more than food to survive – it is a variety of the right vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), given when the body needs them, to enable our children to thrive. A wide range of micronutrients, from a wide range of foods are necessary during pregnancy.


Folate (or folic acid) helps with the closing of the structure from which the brain and spinal cord form (neural tube) in the foetus, preventing neural tube defects -  the most common being spina bifida and anencephaly. Neural tube defects are one of the most common preventable birth defects, affecting over 300,000 births each year worldwide. Neural tube defects develop in the first month of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. This is why folate is so important early on in pregnancy – even when a pregnancy is being planned. Sources of folate: Fortified maize, supplementation, cooked spinach, beetroot, green peas, bread, liver, dried beans, soybeans, chickpeas, lentils.


A developing baby needs iodine to make thyroid hormones, which are essential for brain development. Sources of iodine: Iodated salt and fish

Iron & Vitamin B12:

The pregnant woman needs iron and B12 to produce the red blood cells, which will determine how much oxygen, reaches the baby’s body and brain.  Iron is gathered rapidly by the foetus during the last trimester and is necessary for basic neuronal processes such as myelination, neurotransmitter production, and energy metabolism. Sources of iron and vitamin B12: Iron - Red meat, liver, chicken, fish, eggs, spinach, supplementation; Vitamin B12 - meat, dairy products, fish & eggs.  


Choline is needed for the building blocks of cell membranes and to transmit nerve signals. Sources of choline: Eggs, meat, fish


The foetal rapidly growing brain, is made up of 60% fat, and thus needs nourishment. Most important are DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) one of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and arachidonic acid (ARA) an omega-6 fatty acid that is one of the most important components required for brain maturation and eye health. DHA and ARA accumulate in the foetal brain and nerves. Sources of DHA and ARA: DHA – Fatty fish; ARA – meat (incl. chicken), eggs.


Calcium helps signals to be sent from nerves to the brain. Sources of calcium: Milk, dairy products, meat & spinach.

Breastfeeding key to brain development from birth…

After birth, brain growth depends critically on the quality of a child’s nutrition. Breastmilk offers the best mix of nutrients for promoting brain growth. A child should only be given breastmilk for the first 6 months – that is exclusive breastfeeding (no water, no tea – nothing but breastmilk).

At 6 month’s adequate and appropriate complementary foods should be introduced into the child’s diet while continuing to breastfeed to at least 2 years and beyond. Continuing breastfeeding will provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one-third during the second year of life. It is also important to introduce iron rich foods into the child’s diet early on. Giving the child a variety of foods including vegetables and fruit and meat will help the child obtain all the nutrients he/she needs. Vitamins and minerals can also be found in fortified products such as bread and maize.  

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”

    ~Nelson Mandela

In a world where too few people have the luxury of good nutrition from food, usually due to low dietary diversity because of affordability issues and lack of awareness and knowledge, delivering micronutrients through fortification of staple foods or supplementation becomes necessary in the short term. We cannot fail our children - they are the future.

Follow our campaign on Facebook (Bright4Africa Kenya and Bright4Africa South Africa) or Twitter (@Bright4AfricaK and @Bright4AfricaSA) as we cover different topics through the year on the important role of vitamins and minerals at significant life stages.


Download a copy of the infographic HERE



  1. Cusick, S and Georgieff, M.K, The first 1,000 days of life: the brain’s window of opportunity.
  2. Jones, H. 2016. Optimal Nutrition for Infants and Toddlers: Ingredients You Can’t Afford to Ignore.
  3. Nowakowski RS (2006). Stable neuron numbers from cradle to grave. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 103(33):12219–12220.
  4. Gilmore JH, et al. (2007). Regional gray matter growth, sexual dimorphism, and cerebral asymmetry in the neonatal brain. Journal of Neuroscience. 27(6):1255–1260.
  5. McDonald C, et al. (2013). The effect of multiple anthropometric deficits on child mortality: meta-analysis of individual data in 10 prospective studies from developing countries. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 97(4), p.896-901.
  6. Horton S (1999). Opportunities for investments in low income Asia. Asian Development Review, 17, p.246–73
  7. Save the Children (2013). Food for Thought.
  8. McGregor S.G (2007). Developmental potential in the first 5 years for children in developing countries. Lancet 369(9555): p.60–70.

Published on

16 May 2017

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