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Promoting Healthy Brain Development in Infants

Ways to Support Development Before, During and After Pregnancy

Parents want the best for their kids, and raising a smart baby is one of the hottest topics discussed on television, and in books, chat rooms and play groups. It’s true that heredity plays a role, but your lifestyle choices and the environment you create for your baby can directly affect your baby’s brain power. From taking certain vitamins before you get pregnant to nurturing and engaging with your newborn, there are things you can do before, during and after pregnancy to support your baby’s development.

Before You Get Pregnant

“Women often ask me what they should do to prepare for pregnancy. I advise them to first focus on making healthy lifestyle choices. It is important to remember that the development of their baby’s brain begins before their positive pregnancy test,” says Tiffany M. Rogers, DO, obstetrics and gynecology specialist with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group.

To have the healthiest pregnancy possible, your pre-conception health matters. This is a good time to adjust your diet and health habits to get your body ready for pregnancy. Here is a checklist of things to do a few months before you start trying to get pregnant.

  • Quit smoking: Twenty to 30 percent of low birth weight babies, and up to 14 percent of pre-term deliveries are associated with smoking during pregnancy. If you’re looking for support for smoking cessation, your healthcare provider can help.
  • Reduce – and then eliminate – alcohol consumption: Alcohol has been linked to behavior problems, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity and aggressive behavior in children. “It’s widely understood that heavy drinking during pregnancy can lead to severe developmental problems, but even light alcohol consumption can have permanent effects on your child,” says Rogers.
  • Stop recreational drug use: Chances of miscarriage, low birth-weight, developmental delays, and behavioral and learning problems increase with drug use.
  • Start taking prenatal vitamins: There are many over-the-counter options. Make sure yours has folic acid, vitamin D, calcium, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin E, zinc, iron, iodine and DHA.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Focus on food that helps you get the recommend daily allowance of these essential nutrients:
    • Folic acid: Also known as vitamin B9, 400 micrograms of folic acid each day reduces the risk of neural tube defects before conception. Folic acid is found in fortified cereals, leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, peas, citrus fruit, lentils, nuts and pasta.
    • Calcium: To create healthy bones, teeth and muscles in your baby and to maintain your own bone health, you need about 1,000-1,300 mg of calcium daily. Yogurt, milk, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified foods like soy milk, juice or bread have calcium.
    • Iron: This nutrient prevents anemia and helps deliver oxygen to your baby, so eat your spinach, iron-fortified cereals, dried fruit and red meat. Aim for 27 mg each day.
    • Omega-3: Omega-3 is a type of fat that is found naturally in many kinds of fish and is important for your baby’s brain development both before and after birth. The recommended daily allowance is 1,000-2,000 mg a day, which is the equivalent of two to three ounces of fish or two tablespoons of flax seeds. Tossing chia seeds in your smoothie or cooking with flax seed oil are easy ways to work these into your diet.

While You’re Pregnant

Congrats, mama! Before you even begin to show, your baby’s nervous system is making big strides. During your pregnancy, taking your prenatal vitamin and eating a healthy diet balanced with fruits and vegetables is essential. Folic acid continues to be important, as it reduces your baby’s chance of serious neural tube defects or spina bifida by 70 percent.

Did you know that 70 percent of the new tissues in your baby are fat-based? That’s why 25 percent to 35 percent of your calories during pregnancy should come from healthy fats. This doesn’t mean you should load up on ice cream and milkshakes. You need the right balance of saturated fats (meat, beans, milk, dairy) and unsaturated fats (walnuts, flaxseed, salmon). Additionally, while the link between common preservatives and artificial food coloring to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has not been conclusively proven, these additives have no nutritional value for you or your baby. It’s best to stick to fresh foods.

When you find yourself reaching for sweets, soda, French fries or other temptations, try drinking water instead. It’s important for pregnant women to stay hydrated by drinking at least 12 glasses of water every day.

If you want some assistance tracking your pregnancy, including insights on which foods to avoid during pregnancy, try one of these week-by-week pregnancy trackers for your smartphone.

After Baby is Born

Once your bundle of joy arrives, the real fun begins. If you plan to breastfeed, there are many health benefits, including fewer infections, reduced risk of chronic illnesses, and less chance of SIDS for baby, as well as quicker post-delivery healing and reduced risk of some cancers for mom. But it remains to be seen if breastfeeding gives your baby a higher IQ.

Whether you breastfeed or not, there’s no doubt that the time you spend bonding and engaging with your baby is priceless.

Reading, singing and talking to your baby along with cooing, making facial expressions and other forms of play are key to your baby’s brain development. What you read isn’t as important as reading out loud, and it is one of the best things you can do to help your child learn to speak well, read easier and develop a love for learning. Making eye contact and paying attention to those things that interest your baby stimulates your baby’s brain to grow.

At first, your baby’s responses may be minimal but very soon, you’ll experience many milestones, like baby’s first smile and the first time he mimics your voice.

If you have questions about any of these techniques, your pediatrician can help guide you and answer your questions about promoting your baby’s brain development.