Here's How Nutrition Affects Brain Development In Toddlers

Here's How Nutrition Affects Brain Development In Toddlers


Nutrition affects brain development, with consequences throughout the school years and adulthood.

Indian kids are particularly vulnerable to nutrition-based issues due to the high prevalence of non-balanced food either in the form of undernutrition, overnutrition or micronutrient deficiencies in their families. The first three years of a child’s life are critical. Adequate nutrition is important to raise a smart and healthy baby.

Normal Brain Development

A baby’s brain size at birth depends on the quality of its mother’s nutrition during pregnancy. Pregnant women must have a balanced diet and consume an extra 300 calories per day, including about 20 extra grams of protein.

After birth, brain development of the child is influenced by the child’s relationships, nutrition, stimulation, and experiences. In the first year of life, the infant’s brain size will double, and by age three it will have reached 80 percent of its adult volume.

How Nutrition Affects Your Baby’s Brain Development

It is well known that nutrition deficiency during the first three years affects the baby’s cognition, behavior, and long-term productivity. According to the World Health Organization 2015 report, children who are malnourished have smaller brains and inadequate cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional skills as compared to well-nourished children.

The 5 Best Brain Foods For Toddlers

A toddler’s appetite will sharply drop after the first birthday, and that is normal because the toddler’s growth rate will have slowed as well. However, the toddler still needs adequate macronutrients and a wide variety of micronutrients. Examples of daily micronutrient requirements include:

  • 7 milligrams of iron.
  • 700 milligrams of calcium.
  • 600 IU of vitamin D.

To reach these minimum nutritional requirements, encourage the toddler to eat a healthy and varied diet by including foods from the five food group categories:

  • Protein

Protein is an essential nutrient and helps the toddler build tissue, cells, and muscle. In the body, it breaks down into amino acids that promote cognitive development. In fact, protein malnutrition can result in abnormal brain size and cell maturation with behavioral consequences that persist during adult life.

Protein can come from both plant and animal sources. Examples of protein from animal sources are milk and milk products like cheese, paneer etc., lean meats, poultry, fish, and eggs. Good vegetarian sources for toddlers include beans, tofu, lentils, nuts and seeds.

Dosa made from green gram is a healthy and protein-rich recipe for a toddler.  It can be served with peanuts and milk for better protein and calcium intake.

  • Grains

Grains are an important part of a healthy diet, providing nutrients and energy for the toddler. There are two types of grains: whole grains and refined grains.

Refined grains have less nutritional value and high sugar and fat levels because they go through a process that removes the bran and germ. Some examples of refined grain products are white flour, white bread, and white rice. Meals that include foods such whole wheat flour, ragi (millet), bajra (pearl millet), jowar (sorghum) are good options for the toddler.

  • Fruits

A toddler should get one cup of fruit every day. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried.

  • Vegetables

Vegetables contain a high amount of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support healthy growth. Be creative in the kitchen and make kid-friendly vegetable recipes. Make it a practice to also increase the nutrition of grain-based foods by adding vegetables and/or green leafy vegetables like Palak or Amaranth leaves to grain-based foods like rice, dals, rotis etc. Always include colorful non-starchy vegetables and green leafy vegetables in meals. Vary the vegetables from time to time because it is important to expose the toddler to a wide variety of options and flavors.

  • Dairy

Milk, yogurt (dahi), paneer, khoa, cheese, ghee, butter etc. are dairy products.  They are all made from milk and they are excellent sources of calcium, which is important for healthy bones.

Calcium is an essential mineral, which allows strong development of the nervous system too. Calcium affects the neurons within the body, and if a child does not get enough, the brain might not fully develop. Some studies link the lack of calcium to autism.

If the toddler has lactose intolerance or an allergy to cow milk protein, dairy alternatives and substitutes need to be used. Soy or almond milk are healthy and safe alternatives. While purchasing alternatives to cow milk, always choose products that are fortified with calcium. Check the nutrition label to be sure.

  • Iron Requirements

Iron and calcium are the nutrients most likely to be low in a toddler’s diet. A toddler needs an average of 6.9 mg of iron a day to increase blood cells and support brain development. Iron is essential for brain development, maturation, and functioning. In fact, Iron deficiency i.e. Anemia in early life is associated with a permanent deficit in cognitive and social achievements.

Iron is found in both animal and plant foods. Examples of iron-rich foods include:

  • Dark, leafy vegetables, such as spinach (palak), radish leaves (mooli leaves), amaranth leaves (red maath and green maath), cauliflower leaves, moringa leaves and all other commonly eaten leafy vegetables in India.
  • Eggs.
  • Whole grain breads and cereals.
  • Lean red meat, such as beef, veal, lamb, pork.
  • Legumes such as chickpeas and lentils (dals).
  • Breakfast cereals that have iron added (check the labels).

Adding vitamin C rich food with the iron-rich food, aids in iron absorption. Tomatoes, lemon, oranges, and gooseberries (aawla) are examples of foods rich in Vitamin C.

Feeding Tips For Your Toddler

Make sure that feeding is enjoyable for a toddler. Toddlers are learning to feed themselves and to eat new foods, and they enjoy playing with their food.

The first tip is to let the baby get messy while eating. Mealtime is playtime. In fact, it’s one of the first active sensory games the baby will have. As the baby learns to use its fingers to point and grab, it will eventually learn to put some food in its mouth.

Between two and six years of age, children are generally reluctant to eat new foods and reject foods that are unfamiliar. However, eventually, they accept a variety of foods. Involve the toddler in the selection and preparation of foods and teach them to make healthy choices. This helps a lot with ‘fussy’ eaters.

Lastly, do not make mealtimes a battle. Be flexible with food acceptance as toddlers are often reluctant to try new things. If the toddler refuses food, offer a variety of foods. Leaving the choices to the toddler is the best option. The new food can be tried again in a few days or weeks.

How Can You Prevent Choking In Your Toddler?

Choking is a matter of concern in toddlers. Prevent choking by:

  • Timely introduction of solid foods.
  • Avoiding foods that are hard to chew.
  • Supervising the child during mealtimes.
  • Cutting up food and fruit into small pieces.
  • Keeping the child seated while eating.

Take-home Message

Nutrition is essential for the development and functioning of the baby’s brain throughout its life. A toddler can be helped to reach its intellectual potential by including the right amount of the five food group categories in each meal. Also, provide the right amount of iron and Vitamin C. Remember that for raising a smart baby, an intelligent nutritional start is essential.