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7th April, 20215 min read

Expert advice: How to feed your baby’s brain during pregnancy

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Dr Swati Maheshwari
Last reviewed: 30/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Wondering what you need to eat – or not eat – to make sure you’re giving your baby what it needs for its brain to develop optimally right from the start? We ask our guest expert Dr Swati Maheshwari about the importance of ‘the first 1,000 days’ in a baby’s development – and the role nutrition plays during this time.

As a doctor, I often talk about the importance of ‘the first 1,000 days’ in relation to a baby’s development, and how this time period can set a child up for optimal development and learning for years to come.

If you're pregnant, it’s completely normal to want your baby to be a good weight at birth – but ‘eating for two’ can lead to weight gain that might not be healthy. The good news is that putting on weight through the intake of the right proportion of nutrients during pregnancy can be safe and nourishing – both for you and the brain of your developing baby.

Here’s what you need to know about how to eat during pregnancy to give your baby the best start in life.

What are the first 1,000 days and why are they important?

The first 1,000 days of life is the time in a baby’s life from conception to their second birthday.

This time period offers a unique opportunity to build strong foundations for a baby’s physical health and growth, as well as brain development.

The first 1,000 days can have a long-term impact on how a child develops throughout their life.

The link between the first 1,000 days and brain health

It’s easy to think about a baby’s health as something to be focused on in the future, once they’re born. But a baby’s health and development starts at conception.

Children develop basic learning skills and personal capacities early in life. Their tiny brains, and the countless neurons that are developing every minute, need the best possible nutrients right from the start.

The human brain has around 86 billion neurons and one quadrillion synapses. During the first years of life, neurons form new connections at an astounding rate of 700 to 1,000 per second.

This makes a baby’s brain during gestation and infancy a bit of an ‘energy hog’. It consumes somewhere between 50% and 75% of all the energy absorbed by the body from food.

How does nutrition affect a baby’s brain development?

It’s important to start thinking about nutrition during the first 1,000 days even before falling pregnant.

Make sure you’re getting all the folic acid you need for a healthy pregnancy and to help prevent brain and spinal cord birth defects. Foods like spinach, cabbage, okra, carrot, beans, peas, oranges and fish are good sources.

Once you’re pregnant, your body needs the right balance of micronutrients to help your baby’s brain develop properly. These include protein, zinc, iron, choline, folate, iodine, vitamins A, D, B6 and B12, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Not getting enough nutrients during this critical period can have a lifelong impact on your baby’s brain development, even if you follow good nutrition outside of the first 1,000 days.

What to eat when pregnant

Aim to eat 3 meals a day, with 2 to 3 snacks that are low in sugar and salt. Be sure to include:

  • cereals and millets – whole grains, wheat, rice, ragi, bajra and jowar (try to avoid maida or refined flour)
  • vegetables – include green leafy vegetables, starchy vegetables like potatoes, beets, or carrot and another type of vegetable, like okra, tomato, beans or brinjal (bright colours usually indicate high nutritional value)
  • fruit – stick to 2 a day
  • milk and dairy products – milk, curd or paneer
  • protein – pulses, eggs, meat, fish
  • fats and oils – especially omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (flax seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids)
  • natural sugar – 4 portions of 5g each (avoid trans fats by limiting things like cake, biscuits and pastries)
  • water – drink 10 to 12 glasses of water a day to stay well hydrated

What not to eat when pregnant

Try to avoid these foods as much as possible when pregnant:

  • tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks
  • undercooked meat, fish or eggs and unpasteurised dairy – these may contain a type of bacteria linked to miscarriage

Key points

  • the first 1,000 days of life is the time in a baby’s life from conception to their second birthday
  • this is a very important time for a baby’s brain development
  • getting the right nutrients before and during pregnancy can impact the healthy development of a baby’s brain
  • weight gain during pregnancy can be safe and healthy for you and your baby
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.