The First 1000 Days: Nutrition Really is that Important
For any baby the first 1000 days – from conception to around two years of age – is a super important time to set down lifelong health foundations and a period of rapid growth and development.
It’s a time when good nutrition is paramount: research shows that this period is a kind of ‘golden window’ of opportunity. It’s where the footprint for lifelong health is seeded. From adequate nutrition during pre-pregnancy and pregnancy to your toddler’s diet, it’s a vital time.
Poor nutrition during these early days can have long term consequences for both the individual child and also the broader community: that’s because the negative effects influence health and wellbeing and these have knock-on effects in terms of higher healthcare costs, the competitiveness of the workforce and even equality of opportunities to all.
This period is also important because it’s the time when the gut bacteria, also called the gut microbiota, is established and this is essential for immune function, gut health and all sorts of numerous subsequent benefits. For babies, birth is a super important time for setting up the gut bacteria, as bubs get exposed to significant levels of their mother’s and the world’s microbes for the first time.
We can look at the first 1000 days as a series of steps, breaking them down to help us stay on track, as we navigate through these steps.
Pre-pregnancy generally means the three months leading up to pregnancy and making sure you are your healthiest self during this preconception period can help with conception, reduce the risk of issues popping up during your pregnancy and also assist recovery from birth. Being at your healthiest body weight is a great place to start. Oh, and by the way, during this period, supplemental iodine and folate are recommended for tip-top pre-pregnancy nutrition preparation, so it’s best to chat to your GP or dietitian about your needs for these nutrients if you are planning a pregnancy.
For other great nutrition advice on eating well, take a look at The Australian Dietary Guidelines for sensible and evidence based approaches to eating for health. For exercise, the Australian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that adults accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (it’s not as much as it sounds!) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both, each week.
Of course, if your pregnancy just popped up without too much planning (what a lovely surprise), just get on board as soon as you can, to get all this good nutrition stuff underway.
2. During pregnancy
During pregnancy, ensure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet and remember that being the healthiest you can be and that what you eat will affect the health and growth of your baby. Eat according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and especially make sure that you get the right amounts of iodine and folate. Generally, the iodine and folate supplements you were having whilst planning your pregnancy should be continued during your pregnancy but again, you should chat to your GP or dietitian about these 2 important nutrients and other key nutrients of importance, including lots of healthy prebiotic fibres to feed the good gut bacteria. All this means that during pregnancy, we should mostly choose foods from the grains and leafy greens and vegetables food groups, fruit, dairy, lean meat, fish and legumes or their alternatives. You can see the Australian Dietary Guideline recommendations at eatforhealth.gov.au.
There are a few things to avoid during pregnancy, such as foods at risk of listeria bacteria contamination (e.g. soft cheese like Brie and soft serve ice cream, raw seafood like sashimi, prepared and pre-packed salads, and products from the deli such as ready-to-eat prawns, turkey, salami, ham and paté). Fish containing higher mercury levels should also be avoided during pregnancy, including Orange Roughy (Sea Perch), shark/flake, billfish (including swordfish, broadbill and marlin) and catfish, but low mercury containing fish such as Salmon and canned Tuna are fine.Oh, and during pregnancy, the recommendations around alcohol are clear: it is best not to have any alcohol at all during pregnancy.
Remember, you don’t need to be ‘eating for two’. Small increases in the amount of food you were eating pre-pregnancy is generally sufficient.
If you can, it’s recommended that babies are exclusively breastfed during their first six months of life. With every breastfeed, there are innumerable advantages for both mother and baby. Breastfeeding can help reduce your baby’s risk of weight issues and obesity later in life. Make sure you’re eating a varied diet as breast milk can influence children’s food preferences later in life. If breastfeeding is not possible, infant formula is the only safe alternative to breast milk.
Birth is also the first point when a baby’s own gut bacteria is set up, as when they pass through the birth canal they experience significant exposure to their mother’s microbes for the first time, although scientists now think that infants are exposed to some of their mum’s microbes in utero. From this point onwards, gut bacteria continues to develop, and stabilises around the end of the 1000 days.
4. At six months
At six months, when you can start introducing solids to your baby’s diet, make sure you introduce a variety of foods, in small amounts. First foods should be iron-containing foods, including iron-enriched infant cereals, pureed meat, poultry and fish (all good sources of iron), or cooked tofu and legumes to meet an infant’s increased iron needs. Vegetables, fruits and small amounts of full-fat yoghurt, cheese and custard may be added, but without added sugar, honey or salt. Other than introducing iron-rich first foods, the presentation of other foods to your baby can occur in any order.
Oh, and by the way, during the introduction of solid foods, from around 6 months until 12 months, breastmilk (or baby formula), if you’ve chosen not to breastfeed) still forms the major part of their dietary intake and remains their major nutrition source.
5. At one year and beyond
By the time your baby reaches his or her first birthday, they should be enjoying a varied diet, and develop the muscles and skills they need for chewing and eating. Milk should still be present, as it provides important nutrients, but by now their diet should be filled with different colours, textures and provide a range of taste profiles.
And as your baby becomes more and more aware of what’s going on around them, remember that you need to be setting a good example. Being a good role model is particularly important at this time.
Lastly, remember that routine is everything. Babies will need a regular routine with appropriate serving sizes. Babies have very small tummies, so they will not eat large amounts all at once. Smaller serve sizes, offered more often, is the way to go…
Remember, the right nutrition is a lifelong commitment and setting the right example for your baby as they grow will ensure they pick up healthy eating habits, which they’ll keep with them long after you’re done preparing their meals!
Dr Sonja Kukuljan PhD – Dietitian