Baby brain food: 7 foods to fuel brain development


If you’ve ever spent time with a toddler, you probably know they learn quickly and absorb new information like a sponge. But brain development begins long before a child can walk and talk.

Brain cells multiply at an astonishing rate as a baby develops in the womb. The brain continues to grow during infancy as motor functions such as balance and coordination develop. During the toddler years (ages 1 to 3), the brain increases cognitive ability — how quickly a child can interpret and relay information to perform complex tasks.

During these periods of peak growth, nutrition plays an important role. For toddlers, not getting the right nutrients can have a detrimental impact on cognitive development — affecting memory, attention and academic ability later in life.

Key nutrients for baby brain development

While all nutrients are important for brain growth and functioning, some play a bigger role in early brain development than others. The American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition recommends certain nutrients for healthy brain development in toddlers:

  • Choline
  • Folate
  • Iodine
  • Iron
  • Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids
  • Protein
  • Vitamins A, D, B6 and B12
  • Zinc

Best foods for baby and toddler brain development

No one food or “superfood” can ensure optimal brain development for toddlers. But some foods are packed with a variety of the necessary nutrients. Just be sure to monitor all new foods to ensure there’s no potential allergy.

1. Eggs

Eggs are nutritious and typically a crowd-pleaser for young children. Brain-boosting nutrients in eggs include choline, vitamin B12 and protein. Choline is especially important for normal brain development and can improve cognitive functioning. Two whole eggs a day provide the choline that children age 8 and younger need.

2. Seafood

Oily fish and other seafood provide a lot of bang for the buck when it comes to brain development —protein, zinc, iron, choline, iodine and omega-3 fats. But avoid feeding your toddler seafood that is high in mercury such as tuna and swordfish. Too much mercury can have harmful effects on a child’s developing nervous system. Instead, opt for low-mercury options such as shrimp, salmon, tilapia, crab or cod. Children under age 3 can have a 1-ounce serving two to three times a week.

3. Leafy green vegetables

There’s a reason that parents try to hide extra leafy greens, such as spinach and kale, in their children’s smoothies and pasta sauce: They’re a great source of iron and folate. Research shows that children who get enough folate tend to have better cognition than kids who don’t get enough. Iron plays an important role in the development of the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

4. Lean beef (or meat alternative)

Lean beef qualifies as brain food because it is an excellent source of zinc and iron. Iron is especially vital for young children because they are more likely to experience anemia (low iron levels). Nearly one in 10 American children age 3 and younger has an iron deficiency, which can contribute to learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Black bean or soy burgers work as great iron-containing burger substitutes.

5. Yogurt

Unsweetened yogurt is an easy, kid-friendly way to support brain growth. It contains nutrients such as protein, zinc, choline and iodine. Children need iodine to produce thyroid hormones, which are vital to brain development and neurological processes. Even mild iodine deficiency may affect a child’s overall cognitive function and ability to reason.

6. Nuts & seeds

Food such as nuts, seeds and nut butters make a protein- and zinc-packed snack. Protein contributes to healthy brain growth and the development of long-term memory. Zinc also plays an important role during the toddler years, when the brain is growing rapidly. Insufficient amounts of zinc may affect your child’s cognitive development, impairing their memory and ability to learn.

Whole nuts and seeds can be a choking hazard, so try adding water to small amounts of peanut butter, or giving peanut-flavored “puff” snacks instead. Just make sure to choose puffs made from real peanuts with no artificial flavoring.

7. Beans

Beans offer several beneficial nutrients for a developing brain including zinc, protein, iron, folate and choline. Some types of beans, such as kidney, pinto and soybeans, also contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. For vegetarian children, the iron and protein in beans make them an excellent substitute for meat.

If you are concerned about your toddler’s diet or want more guidance about what your toddler should be eating, reach out to your child’s primary care physician.