How Your Pregnancy Diet Affects Your Baby’s Brain

Certain nutrients like iodine make a positive impact on your baby’s prenatal health. Dr. Christopher Youngman of Wayne Pediatrics, shares insights on the pregnancy diet.

Most of us know that a healthy diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding plays a pivotal role in setting the foundation for your baby’s health. But did you know that certain foods can even improve your baby’s brain? The first 1,000 days of life, from conception to a child’s second birthday, are critical for brain development. 

According to Dr. Christopher Youngman, Wayne Pediatrics’ chief medical officer and assistant professor at Wayne State, “The right nutrients can boost your baby’s brain development from the start.” 

Let’s explore exactly what the right nutrition for baby brain health looks like, including action steps you can take before and during pregnancy.

Iodine in pregnancy supports healthy brain growth

Iodine is vital for fetal brain development. For one thing, iodine in pregnancy supports the mother’s thyroid function, which is critical to the health of the baby and the mother. A moderate to severe lack of iodine in the mother’s diet can cause defects in the baby’s brain. 

Luckily, many common foods are key sources of iodine: iodized salt, seafood, dairy products and eggs. Be sure to incorporate these into your diet to help support your baby’s brain health, says Dr. Youngman.

Dairy products in particular provide some of the best sources of iodine and other nutrients beneficial to prenatal brain health. Here’s a breakdown:

Low-fat milk:

Milk is a nutrient-dense part of a pregnancy diet. Milk provides iodine, vitamin B12 and choline, all of which support a baby’s brain development. It also contains important nutrients like protein, calcium and vitamin D.

Lactose intolerant? Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate varied amounts of lactose. Lactose-free milk is real milk, just without the lactose.

Yogurt: 

When made from dairy milk, yogurt provides iodine, vitamin B12, protein and calcium. It also contains live and active cultures that help digest lactose. Greek and Icelandic yogurts go through a straining process, which means they have less lactose than other yogurts.

Cheese:

Cheese is an excellent source of iodine, protein, vitamin B12 and calcium. Plus, natural cheeses like cheddar and Swiss contain minimal amounts of lactose. One note: Pregnant moms should avoid unpasteurized cheeses, such as some varieties of brie and feta, during pregnancy.

Other important sources of iodine

While dairy products are a quick and easy way to get iodine into your pregnancy diet, here are other key sources of this important nutrient:

Iodized salt: 

Iodized salt is found in many products including table salt and even pasta if it was cooked in water with iodized salt.

pregnancy diet foods for prenatal brain health, iodine

However, if you are one of the many who use sea salt, be aware that this is not a good source of iodine. “Unless it is iodized, sea salt contains much less iodine than regular table salt,” says Dr. Youngman.

Eggs:

Eggs are a great source of iodine plus seven other essential nutrients including iodine, choline, vitamin B12 and protein.

Fish and seafood:

These are good sources of iodine, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should choose options lower in methylmercury, like cod and salmon.

The importance of folic acid on prenatal brain development

“Folic acid is a superstar for brain building,” says Dr. Youngman. “This nutrient is critical for preventing birth defects like neural tube disorders and spina bifida.”

“Your prenatal diet should include plenty of folic acid-rich foods like leafy greens, citrus fruits and beans,” he recommends.

Check the labels on the foods you eat. You can also find folic acid in many enriched cereals and bread or grain products.

Combine a prenatal vitamin with fresh, whole foods

Prenatal vitamins are critical to help add any lacking nutrients to an expectant mother’s diet, says Dr, Youngman. These vitamins often contain essential nutrients like folic acid and calcium. 

While mom-to-be cravings for all types of sweet and salty foods can be powerful, Dr. Youngman recommends choosing fresh, wholesome items to nourish your growing baby’s development, including their brain health.

“Prenatal vitamins are helpful but they can’t do it all,” Dr. Youngman explains.

Establish healthy habits while planning for pregnancy

In addition to establishing a healthy diet well before you plan to get pregnant, Dr. Youngman recommends beginning prenatal vitamins early.

“Starting prenatal vitamins before trying for pregnancy can have significant benefits,” says Dr. Youngman. “A lot of women don’t know they’re pregnant right away and they could be missing critical weeks for nutrition when important development is already occurring,” says Dr. Youngman. “Taking a prenatal vitamin early will help ensure your growing baby has necessary nutrients.”

Ensuring your baby receives the right nutrients for brain health during pregnancy is crucial, but don’t forget the basics of good nutrition, advises Dr. Youngman. “Make sure you are eating balanced meals and staying hydrated, too. Think of prenatal nutrition as the first chapter in your baby’s health story.”

For more information about nutrition, including the benefits of dairy foods, visit milkmeansmore.org. Metro Parent has additional information on healthy eating for kids.

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.

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