By Frank Verderame

A mother’s prenatal diet—even her diet a few months before pregnancy—has a profound effect on her child, from the day before conception to two years of age. This is called the “Thousand Day Window of Opportunity,” and the nutrition choices a mother makes during this time can influence her child’s development all the way through to adulthood. Without access to nutritious food choices, a weak or improper in-utero diet can lead to a child developing obesity, mental health disorders, lower cognitive abilities and impaired social behavior.

According to the First 1,000 Days, there are three crucial stages during this period where a baby’s developing brain is vulnerable to poor nutrition: pregnancy, infanthood and toddlerhood. During these stages, nutrition is paramount to a child’s development, as this is the period where their brain grows and develops the most quickly.

What should a healthy prenatal diet include?
Different foods can affect a baby differently, even in utero. Experienced obstetricians advise expectant mothers to take supplements and eat healthy to ensure proper development.
These include:

  • Folic acid. Folic acid, which comes in vitamin form, lean meats or legumes, helps prevent congenital disabilities of the brain and spinal cord. It’s most effective during the first 28 days after conception when most neural tube defects occur. However, many women don’t know they’re pregnant before 28 days, which is why healthcare providers should advise mothers-to-be to start taking folic acid before they plan to conceive.

  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C is crucial to the baby’s development of collagen, immune system and iron absorption. Low levels of Vitamin C are linked to preeclampsia, which can cause birth injury to both mother and child.

  • Omega-3s. These fatty acids are essential to development, but we cannot produce them on our own, so we must rely on Omega-3-rich foods (like fish) or supplements. During pregnancy and breastfeeding, Omega-3s support the development of the brain, eyes, nervous system and healthy birth weight. They may also help ease post-partum depression in mothers. However, pregnant women should avoid fish high in mercury.

  • Iron. A mother’s iron intake needs to increase during pregnancy significantly. Iron helps deliver oxygen to the baby while in the womb, and without enough oxygen, a baby can suffer complications like cerebral palsy and developmental or cognitive delays.

  • Zinc. Zinc is vital for a baby’s cell growth and genetic makeup. It also helps keep a mother healthy with increased immune system support. The risk of inadequate zinc intake may lead to premature birth, low birth weight or problems during labor and delivery.

Even if a child appears happy and healthy at birth, poor nutrition in the womb can have lasting effects throughout adulthood.

Prenatal development sets the blueprint for adulthood
Studies suggest that a poor diet before and during pregnancy puts a child at risk for health issues later in life. Although conducted with rats and not humans, one study showed that rodents that ate a diet high in fat, salt and sugar while pregnant gave birth to offspring with a preference for both junk food and overeating. This effect lasted long into adolescence. The offspring also had high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, which heightens their risk of heart disease. They also showed high levels of glucose and insulin, raising their risk of diabetes.

One of the study’s authors, Professor Neil Stickland states, “Humans share a number of fundamental biological systems with rats, so there is good reason to assume that the effects we see in rats may be repeated in humans. Our research certainly tallies with epidemiological studies linking children’s weight to that of their parents.”