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Essential Brain-Boosting Nutrients for Baby

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Kate Geagan

Kate Geagan, M.S., R.D.N.

Dietitian and sustainable nutrition pioneer

Essential Brain-Boosting Nutrients for Baby (and Where To Find Them)

Starting at conception through age 3, there is an astonishing amount of growth and development happening in your little one’s brain. From laying down essential “hardwiring” such as tissues, hormones and neural pathways that guide learning, to an increase in cognitive ability, memory and motor functions- you can see your child grow by leaps and bounds. In fact by age 5, your little one’s brain will have grown to about 90% of its full adult size.

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During this period of peak growth nutrition plays an important role, and not getting enough of certain nutrients may have a negative impact on mood, memory, attention and academic ability later in life.

During this period of peak growth nutrition plays an important role, and not getting enough of certain nutrients may have a negative impact on mood, memory, attention and academic ability later in life. While all nutrients are important for healthy brain growth and function, American Academy of Pediatrics has zeroed in on the following key nutrients as most crucial in positively shaping brain development for infants and toddlers:

  • Protein

  • Zinc

  • Iron

  • Choline

  • Folate

  • Iodine

  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 fats)

  • Vitamins A, D, B6 and B12

In this article we take a closer look at 3 of these nutrients, and where to find them.


A full term infant’s iron stores naturally become depleted between 4-5 months, as she doubles her weight, her blood supply increases and her brain continues to develop.

Yet iron deficiency is still the most common nutrient deficiency in American children, and even small amounts of iron deficiency have been shown to lead to cognitive decline. For this reason the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing iron-rich foods such as strained beef or chicken, seafood, dark leafy green veggies, beans and tofu, or iron-fortified foods (such as cereal) beginning between 4-6 months. Heme iron is a highly bioavailable form of iron that is well absorbed by the body, and is found in meat, seafood and poultry.

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Non-heme iron is found in plant sources, such as nuts, dark green vegetables, tofu, beans and fortified grains such as breads and cereals. Compared to heme iron, non-heme iron is typically not as efficiently absorbed by the body. A diet rich in vitamin C (found in fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, tomatoes, mango, bell peppers and broccoli) will help boost absorption of both heme and non-heme iron.


Choline is an essential nutrient that’s a member of the B complex family of vitamins, and plays an important role in your baby’s early brain development, memory and learning. Choline is needed for production of healthy cells and cell signaling (including memory stem cells located in the brain) and a well functioning nervous system. It’s also involved in making neurotransmitters that support mood and memory. Breast milk contains choline, as do most infant formulas.

Found in...
Eggs, chicken, pork, liver, fish and milk offer some of the best dietary sources of choline. But there are plant based options too; soybeans, potatoes, quinoa, certain beans and cruciferous vegetables are also rich in choline.

Omega- 3 Fats

Starting early in pregnancy and continuing through infancy and toddler, a baby’s growing brain loves both Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), two omega-3 fatty acids that play a vital role in healthy eye, brain and nervous system development. Too little omega-3 during this crucial time is associated with higher risk of ADD and ADHD. Breast milk provides DHA and EPA if a mother’s diet contains adequate amounts, or look for an organic infant formula that includes DHA.

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Cold water fatty fish and seafood such as salmon, sardines, mussels and trout are abundant in omega-3 fats (as well as zinc, protein, iodine and iron that are also on the list of brain boosting nutrients) . The USDA recommends omega-3 rich seafood twice a week, or about 8 ounces, and to avoid fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, as these can be higher in mercury. Plant based omega-3s containing alpha- linolenic acid (ALA) include flax, chia and hemp seeds, as well as walnuts and soybean oil. Some fortified foods are also available such as milk, eggs, or soy milk.

This is for informational purposes only and should not be treated as medical advice. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please always discuss any health and feeding concerns directly with your pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read above.

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