Just how important is food for early childhood development?
Early nutritional influences continue to 'build a child'. We are born with a lot of biological growth still to do and a lot of this takes place within the first 5 years. Particularly in relation to the human brain, our brain will grow to 80-90% of its’ adult size by the age of 3. All of that growth takes a lot of energy and with nutrition it isn’t just the quantity of energy (food) that is important but the quality (type). Childhood development depends on the energy and nutrients provided to the brain at this crucial time of life, formative nutrition is so important that what we eat at this point in our lives can impact on future eating habits, future health and even IQ.
Along with the development of our brain, another area of nutritional importance is the 'building of our skeleton'. Early childhood is a window of opportunity to invest in our bones - consider it a bone bank "Investing in the bone bank or following a bone-healthy lifestyle in childhood before the skeleton reaches its' peak bone mass can help the skeleton stock up (bank) more bone" We only have the opportunity to invest in this bone bank before the skeleton reaches peak bone mass (usually early -mid 20's).
When we consider the whole nutritional package though, it isn't just the food we eat, it's the food language we use and the connections we allow to form. Food is emotive, food evokes emotions and memories and we, the grown-ups need to be aware of this when we are creating and shaping a child's relationship with food.
When we reward, bribe or comfort with food (particularly when these foods are often nutrient devoid foods) we are creating a 'food connection' a neural pathway that potentially links cake to comfort or chocolate to reward. These biological connections run deep and can cause, patterns, habits, behaviours even food addictions and eating disorders.
Our children are growing up in an increasingly obesogenic environment, this is already having a damaging impact as we see children develop 'adult diseases' but more on that another time. We need to help our children navigate a food environment specifically designed for hyper-palatability not for health, when we are bombarded with unhealthy food choices and we have a biological pathway internally leading us to these choices, this food journey can be a difficult one. It's not just our responsibility to feed a child, it's our responsibility to help them understand the way in which food shapes their health and how to be in control of their own food journey.
As I am sure you can appreciate, this is a huge subject with many elements to delve into in detail but here's some top tips for now
For brain development, fish is a great source especially salmon, this is costly at the moment but babies and small children only need a small portion. Eggs are also a great source of 'good fats' and are much more economical. Sprinkle some milled flaxseeds over banana porridge or into yogurt for another boost of Essential Fatty Acids
For skeletal development - one of the most important elements is habitual movement. Babies, toddlers and children need to move (a lot) for their bones to grow in strength. Movement to them, should be natural not only during 'exercise time'. Prolonged sitting (including car seats and bouncers) can be detrimental. As children get older, exercise can be a scary word, keep it simple - moving, active, play rather than making it an enforced exercise time.
For habit forming - nutritionally devoid foods are not 'treats' and are not worthy of the title being credited to them. I cannot tell you how many adult damaged food relationships I have seen over the years that stem from early food language choices creating food addictions and negative food behaviours.