The importance of the first 1000 days

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There’s significant research to indicate that the first 1000 days (conception to age 2) is a critically important phase in a child’s life. Many claim that this is where the foundations of a child’s development lie. This means it’s the perfect time to build a healthier future.

There are many influences in this time that impact on the child’s future health but one of utmost importance is that of formative nutrition. We often refer to ‘building blocks’ in nutrition and we can certainly use that term in relation to the first 1000 days.

Good nutrition during this time is the foundation for early cognitive abilities, motor skills and emotional development. This is all largely due to the incredibly impressive rapid growth and development of the human brain.

Brain development

During pregnancy, the brain grows at an astonishing speed. From around the fifth week of pregnancy, neurons begin to form and multiply. These grow at a staggering 250,000 neurons per minute by the middle of the second trimester.

Neurons are crucial for developing connections that help shape development. In terms of energy, half of the calories going into a developing a baby go towards building its brain.

There is a disproportionate amount of energy going into building the brain, as there is a disproportionate amount of activity going on up there! Consider the brain an extremely complicated central computer that’s growing and developing at a truly astonishing pace.

What the baby gets during the prenatal stage comes from their mother, so the prenatal diet is very important but especially when it comes to fats.

A lot of the energy going to build the baby’s brain needs to come from fats. In fact, 40% of our brain is made up of EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids). The mother needs to ensure that she has enough for her and her baby, as the baby will ‘pinch’ what it needs. This can often leave Mum feeling depleted or with ‘baby brain’.

Once the child is born, they will grow and develop at a rapid pace, which means EFA deficiencies can present in the day-to-day functioning of a child. For example, how well can they grasp new things? Consider a child must learn everything, absolutely everything! They need their frontal lobe to be rich in EFAs particularly DHA, to enable them to problem solve, concentrate, and focus.

“When a baby’s development falls behind the norm during the first year of life, for instance, it is much more likely that they will fall even further behind in subsequent years than catch up with those who have had a better start.” Barnardo’s quote from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee – First 1000 days of life 13th report of session 2017-19

There are many elements to nutrition for brain development. Fats such as the EFAs (AA, DHA, EPA and DGLA) are key, as is ALA or Omega 3 and Phospholipids. As with many other elements of nutrition, it is often the vitamins and minerals present or lacking in the diet that tell the bigger picture. Many nutrients are involved in maintaining and developing our brain, including Zinc, Iodine, Vitamin C, B vitamins, Vitamin D and Magnesium.

two young children with carrots

Top brain foods

  • Eggs - A great source of Phospholipids – these are carriers of Omega 3 fatty acids and can help with learning
  • Fish - A great source of Essential Fatty Acids: AA, DHA, EPA, DGLA. These 4 make up 40% of our brains- a deficiency in EFAs will have a negative impact on mood, IQ and behaviour
  • Berries - Rich in antioxidants which support the brain and improve memory function
  • Walnuts – Rich in DHA, these are considered the ‘top nut’ for brain health

Taste development – pre-conception

When it comes to taste development, you may be surprised to know that some elements of this may be taking shape before the child is even conceived! This is all to do with epigenetics.

As we get half our genes from each parent, we also inherit aspects of their genome. This forms part of the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance or ‘epigenome’. Put simply, these are the nutrition and lifestyle factors that can potentially imprint onto your epigenome. Unlike DNA which we can’t change or influence, our nutrition and lifestyle does influence our epigenome, potentially resulting in your eating habits being passed on to your children.

It isn’t just our habits and preferences that get passed on via the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, many studies show how experiences and trauma can also be passed on between generations.

However, these epigenetic traits are not set in stone in the same way as our DNA. So, we can change our lifestyle and nutrition to ensure that we are passing on ‘healthy heritable traits’ via out epigenome. It’s also worth noting that a child born having inherited ‘unhealthy heritable traits’ is by no means set to become unhealthy. The way they live their life can change their own gene expression to be healthier. They may be more likely to get certain things or more predisposed to be obese, but they don’t have to be.

Whilst epigenetics is fascinating, it’s a fairly new area of study and the influence of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance is still being discovered.

toddler eating strawberries

Taste development – prenatal, birth and onwards

Prenatal nutrition checklist

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Avoid the ‘bad fats’ and opt for plenty of ‘good fats’ (less processed high fat foods, more fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, avocados etc)
  • Eat plenty of fibre
  • Eat a naturally colourful mix of fruits and vegetables to ensure a plentiful supply of antioxidants to you and the baby
  • Choose complex carbs over refined (whole grains over white)
  • Eat plenty of lean protein – protein contains the building blocks of life!

It’s worth mentioning that mum’s taste preferences may become the babies taste preferences. (Linked to the epigenetic inheritance above). This is particularly relevant in the third trimester so if mum likes sweet foods. The third trimester is certainly not the time to over-indulge, as this would very likely influence a sweet tooth in the baby.

Sugar

It’s advisable not to introduce free sugars too early into a child’s diet, for example, via cakes, biscuits, chocolates or often even some yogurts and savoury foods such as pasta sauces.

Sugar offers zero nutritional benefit, and it affects taste development. This means it may be considerably more difficult to get a baby/child to eat vegetables if they develop a likening for sweet foods, as the savoury foods will simply not be as appealing!

Crucially, sugar is addictive due to the dopamine response when it is consumed. So, the more you have the more you need, as the satisfaction response is weakened (you need more and more to feel the response, hence why it is addictive, and you can eat a lot of it!).

But that’s not all:

  • Sugar can cause hidden health concerns, which may not appear until later in life.
  • Sugar is a leading cause of tooth decay.
  • Sugar impacts on mood, sleep, behaviour and even IQ
  • Sugar is the leading contributory factor in obesity

Our Sugarwise Platinum Certification!

Nursery Kitchen is the first early years caterer to achieve Sugarwise Platinum Certification! This means that our menu has been expertly assessed and certified as being low in free sugars. In fact, many of our dishes are contain zero free sugars!

Shaping future health habits

Food does more than simply fill up a child. When we feed a child, we also are shaping their future relationship with food. For example, many adults with emotional eating issues can link this back to childhood.

We can help babies and children shape healthier food habits and a lifelong healthy relationship with food, but to do this we need to appreciate the true significance of the foods we feed them.

At Nursery Kitchen, we create exciting, nutritionally balanced nursery meals made with the best and freshest ingredients. With wholesome menus packed with flavours from around the world, encourage are children to be more adventurous with food. This means they’ll be more likely to develop a varied palate which relishes the taste of healthy food!

References

Switching Genes on and Off – The Health Sciences AcademyEpigenetics – feeding the obesity and diabetes epidemic? Institute of Experimental Genetics - Helmholtz Zentrum München (Neuherberg, Germany) Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans - Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Nov 4; 105(44)How Food Shapes Your Child – Louise Mercieca Public Health England – Sugar Reduction – the evidence for action

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