Nutrition matters long before baba takes their first bite! And actually before he or she takes their first sip (of breastmilk). This is because what mama eats during pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding influences babas’ taste preferences as well as physical and mental health.
How? Through early programming
Early programming refers to the adaptation process by which nutrition and other environmental factors influence fetal development and thereby affecting changes in baba’s metabolism and the susceptibility to chronic diseases later in life.1
Amongst all the environmental factors, prenatal and postnatal nutrition are the most influential factors during fetal and infant development. Early programming actually begins before pregnancy or conception. The development period from preconception to early childhood is the time when epigenetic imprinting of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) occurs most actively, which leads to alterations in gene expression affecting long-term health.1
Mama’s favorite foods become babas’ favorite food
What mama eats during pregnancy affects the development of baba’s food preferences.1 It has been shown that maternal dietary intakes of protein, fat and carbohydrate during pregnancy is positively associated with their children’s dietary intakes of the same nutrients at 10 years old.2
But mamas’ diet during pregnancy and lactation also affects babas preferences later in life. Exposure to a variety of flavours through amniotic fluid and repeated experiences with novel flavors during breastfeeding and complementary feeding increase children’s willingness to try new foods within a positive social environment.3 Thus, eating a variety of food will prevent deficiencies for mama and baba1 and picky eating.3
Mama’s diet affects babas’ brain development
Critical periods for brain development during pregnancy are characterized by great maturation and brain growth. During these periods, adequate caloric intake, protein, long-chain fatty acids, some minerals (such as iron, zinc, selenium, copper and iodine) and vitamins (such as folate, vitamin A) and other nutrients, such as choline, play a critical role. When mama’s diet does not provide these nutrients in the right quantities, it may irreversibly alter her baba’s brain function. It may also affect behavior.1
No need to go on a diet during pregnancy or when breastfeeding
A high-fat diet may affect brain development, but so will a deficiency in some nutrients. Poor intrauterine nutrient supply activates a process in which babas respond through physiological adaptations, which involve optimizing the bioavailability of nutrients and diverting blood supply to the brain and other key organs. These adaptations increase babas’ survival rate, but may lead to poor growth and have detrimental effects on the development and subsequent functioning of some organs affecting the renal, cardiovascular, respiratory, and endocrine systems. Similar effects affect the development and function of other organs.1
A sufficient amount of micronutrients before and during pregnancy is associated with an increase in birth weight and a decrease in risk of preterm birth, gestational hypertension and preeclampsia and even improvement in baba’s mental development.1
Mama’s diet is critical for baba’s mental health
Animal studies have shown that perinatal exposure to a high fat diet or caloric restriction increases anxiety-related behaviors and that protein restriction may lead to great impulsivity. In addition, animal studies, showed a low protein intake during pregnancy is related to modifications in behaviors related to depression, including problems related to learning, memory, neuromuscular coordination, and behavioral development, although the underlying mechanisms affected are unknown.4
Studies in humans are scarce. However, one study found that babies born with a low birth weight, have a high risk for suffering from anxiety disorders and/or mood disorders.5 Of course there are several causes for babies to be born of low birth weight, but one preventable cause is poor maternal intake.
We are what we eat, but also what our mamas eat. Eating a healthy diet with lots of variety is good for mama and baba!
Here are some tips that may help:
- Eat Regularly throughout the day → breakfast, lunch, dinner + 2-3 snacks
- Focus on eating a variety of nutrient and energy-dense food instead of dieting
- Remember to drink fluids
- Keep healthy ready-to-eat snacks on hand, especially ones you can eat with one hand!
- Moreno-Fernandez, J.; Ochoa, J.J.; Lopez-Frias, M.; Diaz-Castro, J. 2020. Impact of early nutrition, physical activity and sleep on the fetal programming of disease in the pregnancy: A narrative review. Nutrients, 12: 3900; doi:10.3390/nu12123900/
- Brion, M.A.; Ness, A.R.; Rogers, I.; Emmett, P.; Cribb, V.; Smith, G.D.; Lawlor, D.A. 2010.Maternal macronutrient and energy intakes in pregnancy and offspring intake at 10 y: exploring parental comparisons and prenatal effects. Am J Clin Nutr., 2010;91:748–56.
- De Cosmi, V.; Scaglioni, S.; Agostoni, C. 2017. Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices. Nutrients, 9:107.
- Belluscio, L.M.; Berardino, B.G.; Ferroni, N.M.; Ceruti, J.M.; Cánepa, E.T. 2014.Early protein malnutrition negatively impacts physical growth and neurological reflexes and evokes anxiety and depressive-like behaviors. Physiol. Behav., 129: 237–254.
- Hack, M.; Youngstrom, E.A.; Cartar, L.; Schluchter, M.; Taylor, H.G.; Flannery, D.; Klein, N.; Borawski, E. 2004. Behavioral outcomes and evidence of psychopathology among very low birth weight infants at age 20 years. Pediatrics, 114: 932–940.