Nutrition to support baby’s cognitive development

The development of your baby’s brain involves millions of new nerve connections and the rapid formation of structures as their body grows, and they begin to learn and navigate their world. While you are pregnant and breastfeeding, you have a window of opportunity to powerfully affect how your child’s brain develops through the foods and supplements you consume.

Studies show that during pregnancy and lactation, a mother’s nutrition can impact her baby’s cognitive development. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pregnant people monitor their nutritional levels because one-carbon nutrients (such as B12, folic acid, choline and others) are beneficial for both mother and baby and can help prevent long term health problems for the baby. 

Brain Development in Pregnancy and Early Childhood

Your baby’s brain grows at an amazing rate before and just after they are born. Brain development begins just three weeks after conception, and at week four, the neural tube closes. The brain and spinal cord will then develop from the neural tube. And because many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at four weeks, eating enough one-carbon nutrients before conception is important to support proper neural tube development and reduce your baby’s risk of neural tube defects, such as anencephaly and spina bifida.

While the structure and fundamentals of the brain are formed before birth, the first two years of a child’s life are when the connections between brain cells are made at a faster rate than at any other time. While the input their brain receives is a very important part of normal development, your nutrition if you choose to breastfeed is important, as well. Proper levels of  one-carbon nutrients including choline, folate, and betaine, as well as vitamin B12 and nutrient DHA, all help stimulate proper cognitive development and function.

The Importance of One-Carbon Nutrients and DHA

Because the brain is developing so quickly in the fetal stage, pregnant women need to consume more one-carbon nutrients and DHA compared to non-pregnant women.

Researchers at Harvard and Cornell universities have found that mothers who consume higher levels of choline, folate, betaine, and B12 during pregnancy and lactation give birth to infants who display higher scores on tests of cognitive processing speed and visual memory.

While one-carbon nutrients and DHA can be made by the body in limited amounts, we must get most of them from food and supplements.

Research has found that nearly 90% of women do not meet the daily recommended amounts of one-carbon nutrients or DHA.

SNPs (pronounced snips) are common misspellings in your genes that can affect how they function. SNPs in genes that regulate how your body processes and shares nutrients with your developing baby, might be partially or fully turned off. SNPs in any of the pathways involving one-carbon nutrients or DHA can increase your body’s requirement for them. This can lead to a depletion in nutrients and your baby not getting enough of what they need. Research shows that these SNPs are common, affecting up to 70% of women in the U.S.  

Make sure you’re getting the right nutrients

Genetic tests like The Genate Test from SNP Therapeutics can help women understand how their nutritional levels are being affected by SNPs and help address nutritional deficiencies that may become depleted during pregnancy.

If the increased needs for one-carbon nutrients and DHA in affected women are not addressed by nutritional supplements and food sources, resulting deficiencies  may raise their child’s risk of impaired brain function.

One-carbon nutrients and DHA are critically important during pregnancy and the first three years of a child’s life because of their roles in cognitive development. Consuming adequate levels of choline, folate, vitamin B12, and DHA and addressing any SNPs that impact  how these nutrients are used in the body is crucial if you may become pregnant, are pregnant, or are breastfeeding.

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Caudill MA et al. FASEB J. 2018; 32: 2172- 2180 and Bahnfleth CL, et al. FASEB J 2022; 36(1): e22054;

Klatt KC, et al; Am J Clin Nutr 2022; May 16; nqac147.  doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqac147

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