Foods for a Healthy Baby Brain

A Critical Period for Healthy Baby Brain Development

While all parents strive for the well-being of their children, it’s good to be mindful of their mental well-being too. In the first three years, a baby’s brain grows nearly 85% of the ultimate adult brain volume [2]. In the first five years, a child’s experiences will form the foundations for all brain functions later on in life [3]. Luckily there are ways to help increase the chances for healthy and wholesome neurodevelopment for infants through the choices we make everyday concerning baby’s nutrition and feeding practice.

Breast Milk Matters for Healthy Baby Brain

Breast milk is key for infants 0-6 months old, with the WHO recommending exclusive breastfeeding during this time for its protective effects and because it is nutritionally wholesome [1,4]. The continued offering of breast milk has been shown to be associated with heightened levels of intelligence [5].

Nutrients for a Healthy Baby Brain

However, once complementary foods are being introduced at approximately 6 months, breast milk can no longer provide all the nutrients a baby requires. Key nutrients should be emphasized for proper brain formation. Iron, zinc, iodine, folate and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E have all been linked to support for optimal growth and maintenance of a developing brain [4,5,6,7].

  • Vitamin B complexes and iodine are both shown to heavily deal with the processes of neural insulation (myelination) and formation of new synaptic connections. Dairy, eggs, and fish are rich in B vitamins.
  • Deficiencies in iron, the most common nutrient deficiency across the globe, can cause massive architectural changes in the wiring of an infant’s brain, especially within the first 24 months [4,8]. Red meats and legumes are rich in iron.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (aka DHA) and other long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) are also crucial in this process by being an essential building block for cell membranes, including neurons, axon insulation and neurotransmitter processes [8]. A mixed approach in the delivery of multiple LCPUFAs have resulted in slight optimization of visual development as well [8]. Avocado, fatty fishes, eggs, nuts, beans are rich in LCPUFAs and Omega 3.

*It is important to note that due to the high sensitivity of infants, too much of any one nutrient could bring negative outcomes. Consulting with a pediatrician is always recommended when adapting any new approaches to infant nutrition.

Feeding Practices for a Healthy Baby Brain

Not only nutrients, but also the way you feed your baby matters in brain development.

Baby led weaning allows the infant to choose what to eat, and also encourages the exploration and development of motor skills. The processes of first identifying what they see as foods, to reach out and grasp the pieces, becoming familiar with textures, flavors, colours and the smell of food all compound to build upon existing neural networks for sensory and motor coordination [12,13,14].

Research has also shown an association between responsive feeding practices and a greater self-understanding of when the infant is full [15]. This allows a baby to initiate and lead their own meals, and have caregivers respond with positive encouragement. This fosters an environment in which self-discovery of food preferences happens. Social interaction is one of the key factors for further brain development including language skills.


  1. Krebs N, Lozoff B, Georgieff Michael. Neurodevelopment: The Impact of Nutrition and Inflammation During Infancy in Low-Resource Settings. Pediatrics. 2017;139(S50). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2828G
  2. Murray R. The sensory and motor experiences associated with feeding, the type, variety, and timing of foods, their flavors, smells, and textures, as well as the social and emotional context of feeding, all contribute substantially to cognitive, social, and emotional maturation. Ann Nutr Metab. 2017;70(S3):38-46. doi:10.1159/000479246
  4. Essential Nutrition Actions: Improving maternal, newborn, infant and young child health and nutrition, World Health Organization
  5. Vaivada T, Gaffey MF, Bhutta ZA. Promoting Early Child Development With Interventions in Health and Nutrition: A Systematic Review. Pediatrics. 2017;140(2):e20164308
  6. Suchdev P, Boivin M, Forsyth B, Georgieff M, Guerrant R, Nelson III C. Assessment of Neurodevelopment, Nutrition, and Inflammation From Fetal Life to Adolescence in Low-Resource Settings. Pediatrics. 2017;139(S23). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-2828E
  7. Baker R, Greer F. Clinical Report - Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency and Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children (0-3 Years of Age). Pediatrics. 2017;126(5). doi:10.1542/peds.2010-2576
  8. Schneider N, Garcia-Rodenas C. Early Nutritional Interventions for Brain and Cognitive Development in Preterm Infants: A Review of the Literature. Nutrients. 2017;9(187). doi:10.3390/nu9030187
  12. Cameron, Sonya, Anne-Louise Heath, and Rachael Taylor. "How Feasible Is Baby-Led Weaning as an Approach to Infant Feeding? A Review of the Evidence." Nutrients 4, no. 12 (2012): 1575-609. doi:10.3390/nu4111575.
  13. Brown, Amy, Sara Wyn Jones, and Hannah Rowan. "Baby-Led Weaning: The Evidence to Date." Current Nutrition Reports 6, no. 2 (2017): 148-56. doi:10.1007/s13668-017-0201-2.
  14. Brown, Amy, and Michelle Lee. "An exploration of experiences of mothers following a baby-led weaning style: developmental readiness for complementary foods." Maternal & Child Nutrition 9, no. 2 (2011): 233-43. doi:10.1111/j.1740-8709.2011.00360.x.