The First 1000 Days: Nutrients for Baby Brain Development


Early brain development.

Within the early months of pregnancy, the neural tube is formed and will continue in the developmental path to form the nervous system. This is a crucial stage of foetal development, as the main structures of the nervous system depend on perfect neural tube formation.

Early pregnancy nutrition

Key nutrients such as folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12 are necessary within the maternal diet to ensure that cells divide, migrate, and differentiate correctly to form the neural tube. A maternal diet deficient in these vitamins (particularly folic acid) can increase the risk of neural tube malformation [1], leading to defects that leave the brain and spinal cord improperly positioned for their function. These effects can be so severe that they threaten the immediate survival of an unborn child.

Early pregnancy guidelines

For this reason, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that women should supplement their diet with 400µg (0.4mg) of folic acid, daily. Beginning from as early as pre-conception, folic acid supplementation is linked to a reduction in the risk of neural tube defects [1], making it an essential nutrient throughout pregnancy.

Brain development in early childhood

The newborn brain doubles in size within the first 12 months of life, making this period critical for language and sensory development. Over this time, the general structure of the brain is well-defined, though an exponential increase in connections (or “synapses”) is observed, and this paves the way for increased neurological and cognitive development.

Nutrition for baby brain development

Such development requires long chain fatty acids (such as those found in fish oil), iron, iodine, and B-group vitamins to ensure that brain and nerve cells are developed and functioning properly. Neural cells also require choline to support the chemical messages within the nervous system (i.e., neurotransmitters). If the maternal diet is deficient in these nutrients, it can increase the risk of neurological impairment leading to brain damage, mental retardation, cognitive defects, and psychosocial, learning, and behavioural disabilities.

Important Nutrients for Baby Brain Development

Long-chain fatty acids

Brain food.

Essential omega-3 & 6 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), arachidonic acid (ARA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are vital for brain development. A well-known source of these fatty acids is fish oil, though plant oils and seeds or nuts are also excellent stores of this nutrient. DHA is essential for creating brain cells during pregnancy, then establishing connections between brains cells after birth. Supplementation of these nutrients throughout pregnancy has been linked to greater problem-solving skills and mental processing of information in infants, as well as improved brain and eye development [2-3].


Iron is an essential nutrient found in many foods that form staple diets – such foods include green, leafy vegetables (such as spinach); red meat; and legumes. Dietary iron has been shown to support brain activity and energy levels and has also been linked to a possible protective mechanism against Down’s Syndrome [4]. Conversely, iron deficiency (anaemia) has been studied in mice, with results observing negative effects upon brain development in newborns [5].


Through the influence of the thyroid, dietary iodine is intricately involved in influencing the rate of brain growth, as well as how it uses energy. Rich sources of iodine include seafood and dairy products. Maternal iodine deficiency during pregnancy has been linked to negative effects in fetal and infant neurodevelopment, particularly in activities assessing cognitive elements such as reading and IQ [6].

B-Vitamins for baby brain development

As with every vitamin group that is a part of a balanced diet, the B-vitamins are an essential component of healthy fetal development during pregnancy, as well as aiding in the maintenance of maternal health. The B-vitamins are concentrated in most staple foods, such as cereals, legumes, seafood, and meats. This group of vitamins displays markedly varied activity that ranges from involvement in physiological energy sustainability to maintenance of good mental health. Accordingly, deficiencies in these vitamins are often associated with negative outcomes of pregnancy upon the fetus. Table 1 below summarizes these outcomes.

Table 1: Summary of vitamins for baby brain development.

Vitamin Effect Reference
Thiamine (B1) Deficiency in pregnant mothers associated with general growth retardation and, specifically, poor neural growth. [7-8]
Riboflavin (B2) Linked to improved fetal growth. [9]
Niacin (B3) Rat studies have shown that Niacin may prevent birth defects. [10]
Pantothenic Acid (B5) May be positively correlated to increased baby length at birth. [11]
Pyridoxine (B6) Improves birth weight for growth. [12]
Biotin (B7) While it is difficult to become deficient, marginal deficiency may be teratogenic in humans, and is teratogenic in mice. [13]
Folate (B9) Maternal supplementation proven to decrease newborn neural tube defects. [1]
Cobalamins (B12) Deficiency leads to an increased risk of neural tube defects. [14]


Choline is an amino-acid-like essential nutrient found in legumes, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. A critical part of a balanced diet, it acts to support cellular integrity and as part of the neurochemical messenger found in nerve impulses [15-16]. Maternal choline deficiency during pregnancy has been linked to neural tube defects, though supplementation with choline-rich sources decreases the risk significantly [17]. Maternal choline supplementation has also been linked to modulating stress-associated genes [18] and improving cerebral inhibition, which is associated with improved attention and decreased risk of psychological conditions such as schizophrenia [19].


Benefit Nutrients
Central & peripheral nervous system (formation) Folic acid, vitamins B6 & B12
Central & peripheral nervous system (development) DHA, ARA, EPA, Iron, Iodine, B-vitamins, Choline


  1. Mills et al. Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol. 2004 Nov;70(11):844-5.
  2. Birch et al. Pediatr Res. 1998 Aug;44(2):201-9.
  3. Helland et al. Pediatrics. 2003 Jan;111(1):e39-44.
  4. Czeizel et al. Nutrition. 2005 Jun;21(6):698-704; discussion 774.
  5. Gambling et al. J Nutr. 2003 May;133(5 Suppl 1):1554S-6S.
  6. Bath et al. Lancet. 2013 Jul 27;382(9889):331-7.
  7. Heinze et al. Z Ernahrungswiss. 1990 Mar;29(1):39-46.
  8. Kloss et al. Biochem Cell Biol. 2018 Apr;96(2):169-177.
  9. Badart-Smook et al. J Am Diet Assoc. 1997 Aug;97(8):867-70.
  10. Shi et al. N Engl J Med. 2017 Aug 10;377(6):544-552.
  11. Lagiou et al. Eur J Nutr. 2005 Feb;44(1):52-9.
  12. Dror et al. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2012 Jul;26 Suppl 1:55-74.
  13. Mock. J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):154-7.
  14. Steen et al. Prenat Diagn. 1998 Jun;18(6):545-55. PMID: 9664599.
  15. Blusztajn et al. Science. 1983 Aug 12;221(4611):614-20.
  16.  Zeisel. Annu Rev Nutr. 2006;26:229-50.
  17. Shaw et al. Epidemiology. 2009 Sep;20(5):714-9.
  18. Jiang et al. FASEB J. 2012 Aug;26(8):3563-74.
  19. Ross et al. Am J Psychiatry. 2013 Mar;170(3):290-8.

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