Oftentimes, a woman begins to think like a mother as soon as the stick turns pink. She may ask herself: What can I do to create the healthiest most nurturing environment for this fetus to grow and develop physically? She may also wonder if there are actions she can take to help build her baby’s brain health and intellect.
David Perlmutter, MD, FACN, ABIHM, board-certified neurologistand author of Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten, offers these tips for expecting mothers about how they can boost their babies’ developing brains.
Make sure you’re getting adequate DHA in your diet during pregnancy. DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an essential omega-3 fatty acid that plays a critical role in brain, immune system and eye development. Because your body’s reserves of DHA will be selectively given to the fetus, it’s important to replenish your body’s reserve of this fundamental fat.
Eating fish helps replenish DHA, but many fish are contaminated with mercury and other toxic chemicals, so taking an algae-derived DHA supplement is best. There are many prenatal vitamins that contain added DHA, as well as more than 500 food products that have been enriched with DHA derived from algae.
DHA remains a vital nutrient for brain development after baby is born. That’s why many infant formulas have added DHA. But the best option by far is to breastfeed if at all possible. Keep in mind that the DHA content of breast milk is substantially higher when mothers add DHA to their diets. Breastfeeding women are often advised to take a daily algae-derived DHA supplement supplying about 600 mg of DHA.
Keep in mind that during pregnancy you are in complete control over the environment your future child experiences. Pregnancy is not the time to paint a room, expose yourself to potentially dangerous cleaning products, smoke cigarettes, expose yourself to secondhand smoke or consume foods that may harbor dangerous levels of pesticides. These exposures may lead to compromised brain function.
Exercise is important and encouraged, but excessive exercise that keeps your body temperature elevated for a prolonged time should be avoided. One of the best exercises during pregnancy is swimming. Not only is it good for you from a cardiovascular perspective, but it doesn’t elevate your core body temperature. Yoga also gets the nod, but avoid the “hot yoga” classes that have become popular. Stretching and yoga poses are a great idea, but make sure the room is comfortable.
Finally, you may be overwhelmed by the number of toys, games, dolls and music CDs that promise to enhance your child’s brain development. While there may be some good products out there, don’t underestimate the powerful influence of the spoken word in terms of your baby’s brain development. Get face to face with your infant and talk with as much animation as you can muster. Singing to your baby does wonders for brain development, even if you think you don’t have the world’s greatest voice. It’s all about the interaction.
Certain foods have been proven to positively affect your baby’s memory and capacity to learn, and others can hinder proper brain development. Here, what to eat and what to avoid while you’re pregnant.
Pop Your Prenatal Vitamin Daily
Taking it will help ensure that you get the balance of nutrients your baby needs, like folic acid and vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, vitamin C to produce collagen, vitamin D for bone building, and zinc for brain development. If your vitamin upsets your stomach, don’t just ditch it: Try taking it with a meal, or talk to your doctor about switching brands.
Fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, may boost your baby’s brainpower. In a study from Harvard Medical School, the more fish women ate during the second trimester, the higher their babies scored on a mental-development test at 6 months of age. Omega-3s are found in brain-cell membranes, so there are plenty of ways they can influence brain function, says Lisa Eliot, PhD, assistant professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, in Chicago. If you don’t like fish, talk to your doctor about taking a fish-oil supplement.
Be Mindful of Mercury
Fish is good for your baby’s brain, but you do need to take a few precautions. Mercury contamination in some fish may be harmful. The Food and Drug Administration advises all pregnant women to avoid shark, tilefish, king mackerel, and swordfish completely, since they contain the highest levels. Some lower-mercury options: salmon, catfish, pollack, whitefish, tilapia, and shrimp. Even with these varieties, you should limit all fish to 12 ounces (about two meals) per week. And opt for canned light tuna over canned white albacore, which has more mercury.
Munch on Fruits and Veggies
Produce contains antioxidants, which are good for your baby. “Antioxidants protect the baby’s brain tissue from damage,” says nutritionist Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy. Choose deep-colored produce — like dark leafy greens, papaya, blueberries, and tomatoes — for the biggest antioxidant punch. Just remember to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly, even fruits that have a rind (since cutting it will drag germs through the flesh).
Though fetal alcohol syndrome is associated with heavy alcohol abuse during pregnancy, even moderate amounts of beer, wine, or liquor can harm a baby’s brain, according to the March of Dimes. Light to moderate drinking can lead to problems with learning, attention, memory, and social skills down the road.
Your body needs more protein right now to build cells and make hormones for your growing baby. In fact, your protein intake must jump by 10 extra grams per day. Some good protein boosters: a yogurt smoothie at breakfast, a cup of bean soup at lunch, peanut butter on whole-grain crackers for a snack, or a 3-ounce portion of lean beef (tenderloin and sirloin are good choices) at dinner.
Pump Up Iron
Your iron intake needs to double during pregnancy, since iron helps deliver life-sustaining oxygen to your baby. Trouble is, many women enter pregnancy already deficient, says Somer. If your baby’s deprived of oxygen in the womb, the risk of poor growth — and lower IQ — increases. Ask your doctor to test you for iron deficiency. Then make sure your diet includes iron-rich foods like lean beef, chicken, legumes, and fortified breakfast cereal.
Don’t Gain Too Much
You’re eating for two now, but packing on too many pounds during pregnancy ups your chances of a premature delivery — and babies born early may be at a disadvantage when it comes to learning. “Premature delivery is one of the greatest risk factors for mental impairment,” says Dr. Lise Eliot. “There’s a strong link between birth weight, IQ score, and school achievement.” What’s the connection? Babies born early miss out on the unique nourishment that the placenta provides, are exposed to stimuli they’re normally protected from in the womb, and are more vulnerable to infection. To keep your weight healthy, follow these guidelines:
- If you’re currently a normal weight, gain 25-35 pounds.
- f you’re currently overweight, gain 15-25 pounds.
- If you’re currently underweight, gain 28-40 pounds.
Watch For Food Poisoning
Toxoplasmosis, an illness caused by a parasite found in undercooked meat and eggs, produces flulike symptoms for the mom but potentially devastating consequences for the baby — including blindness, hearing loss, and mental retardation. To help prevent it:
- Wash your hands, cutting boards, and knives in hot, soapy water before and after preparing food.
- Cook meats to at least 160 degrees F.
- At restaurants, don’t order meats rare or medium rare.
- Skip tiramisu and Caesar salad dressing made with raw eggs.
What NOT to Eat During Pregnancy
In the recent years, we’ve found many ‘health’ foods are not so healthy.
Soy foods and products were preferred for some time, but recently, we have discovered they are simply bad. Oh, not all soy foods. Fermented soy is truly a health food. But, can you actually find real fermented soy in your stores? Outside of Asia, probably not. That tofu in the stores is not truly fermented.
We now know unfermented soy, especially in baby foods, causes problems, such as delayed development, allergies (environmental and food), asthma, lower IQ, and childhood cancers (leukemia). Later in life, consuming soy is directly linked and a known cause of thyroid problem. It’s also linked to depression, excessive weight, and heart disease.
Anything low fat is slowly losing favor as healthy. We now know low fat lifestyles and diets are causes of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. Low-fat diets during pregnancy have resulted in lower birth weight, development problems, sickly children, and miscarriage.
Eating a diet rich in healthy fats provides us with stronger, healthier bodies. Proper fat consumption during pregnancy can be easily measured in the development of the fetal brain. We’ll go into this more below.
Coloring and preservatives used in processed foods, especially the snack foods pregnant women enjoy are directly linked as a cause of ADHD in children. Several studies have shown that children with ADHD problems significantly improve and are even cured of ADHD when these chemicals are completely removed from their diet. Starting early, you can avoid potential problem by simply avoiding any foods that contain chemicals and pesticides.
Below we’re going to talk about the 5 best ways to improve your baby’s brains.
But first, we’re going to go over some brain development timelines for your child’s life. You’ll see the impact of what you choose to put in your body on how it will affect your child for the rest of their life.
Fetal Brain Development
The fetal brain goes through several stages of development. During the first trimester, the nerve cells form, but are not actually developed as a brain. Impulses begin to fire without pattern or direction. Sensory organs and nerves are not developed at this point, so the fetus does not feel pain.
During this time, it’s especially important to avoid chemicals and dangerous substances. The first trimester is a time of exponential growth. Healthy fats from natural foods are especially important since nearly 70% of the new tissues are fat based.
During the second trimester, nerve functions start to synchronize and differentiate. The sensory organ begin development, as do the nerves. About the 5th month, the baby can now start to feel, although the sensations they feel are very limited and erratic. Those healthy fats provide faster development, and healthier nerve connections.
Infant Brain Development
Through the age of 5, the brain of children develops nerve connections at a rate unparalleled in any other time of development. Children can possibly develop and use over 100,000 new neuro connections per day.
This is why it is recommended children learn by doing things, listening to speech and language, and begin to read. It is much easier for a child to start learning these functions now than in the next couple of years.
Childhood Brain Development
From age 5 to 10, the learning capacity of children begins to slow down, however, they are still learning at a rate of about 10 times what an adult can learn. The odd phrase ‘picks up knowledge like a sponge’ is accurate. Children at this time will form 10,000 to 50,000 neuro connections per day.
The basic skills of reading, math, comprehension, and association are created now for a lifetime. Children who are stimulated during these years will go on to be smart and productive adults.
Avoiding sugary foods, colorings, chemicals, and pesticides during this time allows children to start developing self-control and ability to pay attention without artificial medications.
Teenage Brain Development
The final cementing of a personality and learning type occurs during the teenage years through about the age of 25. During this time, the brain is settling into patterns that determine a personality. Habits made during this time will last a lifetime. (Adults can change their personality, thinking patterns, and habitswith conscious thought and hard work.)
During this time, hormones are being produced randomly and excessively. Many attention deficit drugs and supplements alter these hormone patterns. Artificially altering the patterns can delay the natural settling of these hormones, causing ADHD and depression later in life.
It’s important during this time to avoid brain damaging chemicals and recreational drugs. The disruption in brain activities can make learning more difficult in later life and severely impact the state of brain and hormones
Prepare a Good Environment
Your baby will be at home totally within your body. Anything that goes in your body will go into your baby’s body. We need to make sure that only good things are going in.
There is a myth that the placenta filters out many toxins between you and your baby. While it does filter out some, most of what goes into us, goes into your baby. Drugs, medications, alcohol, chemicals, toxins, and hazardous materials all accumulate in your baby’s body.
Avoid doing remodeling and painting during pregnancy. While it is one of the most common ways to prepare, the toxins from paint and cleaning supplies are one of the #1 ways to disrupt your baby’s ability to build healthy brain tissues. In fact, a series of studies out of Europe found that 100% of babies born in 2013 had at least 12 chemicals in their systems at birth, with a staggering 238 at the max. The most common chemicals were the ones found in cleaning supplies.
Food is your #1 way to provide building blocks to your child. Choose wisely what you will give.
The only source of natural vitamins and minerals are fruits, vegetables, and whole cuts of meat. Processed foods contain many of those toxic chemicals we want to avoid.
Food cravings are often a sign of mineral deficiencies. Seeking out certain foods is a way to get them. Choose carefully. Ice cream has no nutritional value, therefore is just a sugar craving. This can turn into diabetes if not well controlled.
Drink Lots of Water
A staggering 78% of all people in the US are dehydrated right now. In the summer, this number can climb to 90%. In most people, this results in aching in joints, increased chances of high blood pressure, fatigue, head pain (a hangover is a dehydrated brain), and a depressed immune system.
In pregnant women, this can cause the amniotic fluid to become thicker. While this is often not a fatal condition, it can be uncomfortable and delay development.
Choose your source carefully. The only really good way to tell if your water is healthy is to have a private laboratory run a test on the water your drink. Then, you can make an informed decision.
There are pros and cons to the various sources of our water.
Personal well waters and springs are sometimes the cleanest and freshest sources. They tap into water deep underground. However, it’s also much easier to have bacterial contamination and unknown contaminants.
City water or tap water is tested and certified safe (within reason). However, it often doesn’t taste that good and can have contamination introduced in many ways. The chlorine and fluorine introduced are not good for your body.
Bottled water is considered to be safest, but that’s simply not true. Most bottled water is actually city water that is treated to remove the chlorine, thus making it more susceptible to bacterial contamination. The bottles introduce new contaminants. While the bottles are secure for 6 months, most bottled water sits in a warehouse for 4-10 months before going to a store. These plastic residues are more harmful than chlorine. Plus, in the past 10 years, bottle water has received more recalls and warnings than all public water services combined.
Regardless of the source, we require water and lots of it. Most people need between 64oz (2L) and 96oz (3L) per day. Being pregnant should mean you are drinking closer to the 96oz (3L) mark.
Yes, it will mean that your already crushed bladder with be filling more often. None of us can really help it when the baby dances on our bladder. However, this is something you really need to be aware of. Water is life and your baby needs all she or he can get.
I know, you’re balance is off, your feet ache, and you’re tired. Did you know that will go away the more you exercise?
Gentle, but stimulating exercising during pregnancy increases the blood flow to all parts of your body, including the baby. It will also increase your baby’s heart rate, muscle movements, and stimulate growth. In the past, women didn’t exercise, but kept active through normal activities
For most people, it’s perfectly safe to continue to exercise throughout pregnancy, all the way through giving birth. Now, this is the exercise that makes you feel good after you are done, not the kind that makes you want to fall over. If you already have a routine prior to becoming pregnant, most doctors will advise you to keep it up, just to start backing off when the baby becomes a hindrance to the exercise.
Yoga and swimming are two of the best exercises for pregnant women. Swimming takes much of the pressure off your body while providing quality resistance to keep muscles firm. Swimming also keeps you from sweating excessively or raising your core body temperature, which can be hazardous to your baby’s health. Yoga provides muscle stimulating workouts, enhanced balance and coordination and peace. Yoga can help reduce many of the pain and waddling effects of pregnancy.
While exercising doesn’t provide real, tangible result right away, children of women who exercise are more likely to seek out sports and activity during their lives and be able to achieve the balance needed to keep good grade and activities at a high level.
Provide Brain Stimulating Activities
”Listening to Mozart makes babies smarter” was said in the movie The Incredible. It’s 100% true. Although, any classical, jazz, or instrumental music works, too. Studies show that music enhances brain function, and stimulates many parts that are not stimulated in any other way. A study of musician’s brains shows in excess of 5 times as many interconnections in the brain than non-musicians.
Your baby won’t come out of the womb playing the piano, but will come into the world with an appreciation of finer details in music, life, and love. Also, listening to classical music in the womb leads children to seek out music in schools. Student musicians have an average of 11 points higher IQ than non-musicians.
Reading provides similar stimulating material. But, don’t discount view art and nature. While science has yet to make a connection, it’s been long understood that viewing classical art encourages children to become more creative. It’s believed that the happiness derived from the mother viewing the art becomes ingrained in to the child, who will then seek out art in the future.
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