It’s all about the timing! 

From conception to 18 weeks pregnant:

Generally, getting great nutrition to your baby has the biggest impact in early pregnancy.  This is because early pregnancy is when your baby is building the structures that will make up its brain.  By the time you are about 18 weeks pregnant, these brain structures are all in place and your baby has produced all of the neurons in its brain that it will use across its life.  Of course, the brain is still vulnerable to harmful influences after this stage, but exposure to poor nutrition after about 18 weeks has a less devastating impact on your baby’s brain.

During this early stage of pregnancy the emphasis is on the quality of nutrients consumed rather than the quantity.  Although the baby’s brain is building rapidly, the fetus itself is not growing much in size.  This is very lucky as many women suffer sickness at this stage of the pregnancy that may result in difficulties keeping food down.  It is really important to try to at least keep your prenatal supplement down during this stage of pregnancy to ensure that the baby has access to the range of nutrients that it needs to assist in its growth and brain development.

An example of a specific nutrient that your baby needs during early pregnancy is folate.  Folate is a B group vitamin which you may know as ‘folic acid’.  Folate is crucial for your baby to develop a healthy neural-tube and avoid conditions such spina bifida.  The formation and closure of the neural tube is one of the early key building blocks of your baby’s brain.

Other key nutrients include vitamin B12 and iodine, which can have a permanent and negative impact on your baby’s brain and cognitive development if they are deficient consistently over the critical brain growth period.

If you are worried about your diet and nutrition, you may wish to consider consulting with a doctor, nutritionist or dietitian prior to conception for advice and guidance.


From mid pregnancy to two years of age:

About half way through your pregnancy your baby will have mostly completed building the structural elements of its brain and generating its neurons. At this time the second important nutritional phase begins and lasts until your baby is two years of age.  Across this time, your baby is sensitive to the quantity and quality of nutrition.  Your baby’s brain although structurally complete, will now begin connecting and wiring up its neurons.  It will develop synapses, dendrites and build myelin coatings to protect its growing connections.  We know that having good nutrition at this time has a really important impact on your baby’s future cognitive, emotional and brain functioning.

Malnutrition matters

There are many reasons why a baby may find itself undernourished.  Common causes include famine, poverty, war, as well as other environmental, heredity and social issues.  Lise Elliot reports that when we compare undernourished babies to other children within the same culture, we can see that undernourishment may be linked with developmental problems.  For example, undernourished children seem to;

  • Score lower on IQ tests
  • Not perform as well at school
  • Have slower language development
  • Experience more behavioural issues
  • Experience some sensory integration and fine motor issues
  • Have smaller birthweight and head size
  • Have smaller brains with fewer dendrites, less synapses per neuron, and less myelin
  • Have brains that are slower and less organised.


Nutrition can impact birth weight

A mother’s nutrition influences her baby’s birth weight.  During pregnancy, a mother typically gains about 20% of her pre-pregnancy weight by consuming more calories per day.  Although it is important for a mother to gain good nutrition, this means having a healthy and varied diet rather than eating more low-nutritive foods.  Small birth weight can lead to many health and development issues.  Your doctor will guide you on what a healthy pregnancy weight will be for you personally, as this can depend on many factors including your health and your pre-pregnancy weight.  Baby’s that grow too large can also suffer complications due to birthing issues that put their brain development at risk.

Some of the issues of malnutrition are reversible

The great news is that if your baby suffers undernourishment while in the womb, the impact of this can be reduced!  Babies that are provided with a nurturing environment after their birth can improve their developmental outcomes including their cognitive abilities.  The most important thing to remember is that in order for your baby to catch up on their brain development, the corrections need to occur before they reach two years of age, and the earlier the better!  Children who gain good after birth nutrition, excellent emotional support and intellectual stimulation can recover most of their intellectual ability.  

Information adapted from Lise Elliot, neuroscientist, “What’s Going On In There?”.