Hoping to give your baby an edge on acceptance to the Ivy League? According to experts, there’s a lot you can do to boost baby’s brainpower even before birth. The human brain begins developing between the first and second week of fetal development. Though genetics play a role, diet, exercise and even maternal stress levels also have an impact on your baby’s brain development.
So what’s a mom-to-be to do? “Get plenty of rest, eat nutritious foods and take care of yourself physically and mentally,” says Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and biomedical science at Florida Atlantic University, whose research identifies the contributors to optimal infant and child development. “Fetuses are totally dependent on their mom’s physical and psychological well-being,” she adds.
Here are some specific strategies to help your baby’s brain development and give him (or her!) the brightest beginnings:
Focus on folic acid. Including lots of folic acid in your pregnancy diet is crucial to baby’s developing brain. The US Department of Health recommends that pregnant women get 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid during pregnancy. Most women can’t get enough folic acid through foods alone, so it’s essential to take a daily prenatal vitamin with at least 400 mcg of folic acid.
Skip the swordfish. Avoid exposure to environmental toxins in your pregnancy diet, which can cause neurological damage to the developing brain. That means steer clear of fish high in mercury, such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.
Fuel up on fish oil. Omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA) support baby’s brain development. The March of Dimes recommends that women consume at least 200 milligrams in a pregnancy diet and in a breastfeeding diet. Although foods such as low-mercury fatty fish (salmon, herring, sardines, freshwater trout or DHA-enriched foods) are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, you may want to consider taking a daily vitamin supplement that contains at least 200 mgs of DHA during pregnancy.
Don’t skimp on protein. Brain growth requires extra energy, so it’s important to increase your protein intake in your pregnancy diet. The Dana Guide to Brain Health, a reference from one of the leading philanthropic organizations supporting brain research, states that moms-to-be should ideally consume 6 to 7 ounces of protein-containing food per day (think a piece of chicken and a serving of yogurt). That’s roughly one-third more protein than you’d need pre-pregnancy.
Kick bad habits to the curb. Smoking, alcohol and drug abuse have all been linked to mental impairments and learning problems such as ADHD.
Keep cool. Exercising throughout your pregnancy is a good idea, but avoid overheating -- especially during the first trimester. According to the March of Dimes, a sustained core body temperature of 102.5 F or higher is associated with an increased risk for birth defects of the brain.
- Relax. While low levels of stress during pregnancy are nothing to worry about, numerous studies have shown high levels (particularly in cases of mental or physical abuse) can have serious, long-lasting effects on the baby’s brain development.
Get more advice to improve your pregnancy diet at Baby + You
Getting away from dangerous relationships is especially critical during pregnancy, but when it comes to other sources of stress, adopting new coping skills can help. “Stress is involved in learning, working and everyday living, so new moms cannot and should not try to avoid it -- and sometimes that becomes the stressor. Rather, we should learn to find ways to deal with extreme, enduring stresses and reduce our reaction to them. We should plan ahead, take time to relax, or learn a new coping technique, like meditation or massage,” says Jones.