Early-life Nutritional Programming
Find out all about setting your child up for optimal health, with this look at the science of Early-life Nutritional Programming.
Early life nutritional programming

The idea behind Early-life Nutritional Programming is that the nutrition given to your child during the first 1000 days of a their life (from conception to toddlerhood) is vital in 'programming' their long-term health.

The science says the way your baby’s genes express themselves comes down to this programming, and studies have shown that the right environment can help shape their long-term health in a positive way.

These positive effects include:

  • Influencing their metabolism, which can reduce their risk of being overweight or obese.
  • Influencing their brain development and future brain health.
  • Helping build a robust immune system.
  • Helping reduce their risk of developing allergies and non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes later in life.

So what's the gist of it?

Start before conception

The importance of your diet starts the moment you think about having a baby. For example, taking folate and prenatal supplements, quitting smoking and not consuming alcohol, all help to set your baby up for the best possible start. Dads-to-be can also improve the quality of their sperm by following a healthy lifestyle.

Maintain a healthy diet during pregnancy

Experts, researchers and science agree these diet and lifestyle recommendations will benefit your baby in the long term:

  • Consume a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, wholegrain breads and cereals, moderate amounts of low-fat dairy foods and lean meat, chicken and fish (make sure it is low in mercury), dried beans and lentils, nuts and seeds.
  • Keep foods high in fat, sugar and salt to a minimum.
  • Take folate supplements for the first three months of pregnancy.
  • Don’t consume alcohol (also note: alcohol will pass into breastmilk).
  • Keep iron levels up with iron-rich foods like red meat and iron-enriched cereals, or your doctor may recommend iron supplements if your levels are low. Foods that are good sources of vitamin C (like oranges) will help absorb the iron.
  • Iodine is an important mineral needed for the production of thyroid hormone, which is important for growth and development. Foods rich in iodine include eggs, meat and dairy.

The key stages and recommendations

There’s a lot of information on ENP to read through at each stage of your child’s life, but here’s a quick cheat sheet of recommendations to get you started:

  • Keep up the healthy diet and plenty of water to keep a strong milk supply – exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first four to six months. Seek advice if you are having trouble, including if you wish to move to formula feeding.
  • Introduce solid foods at around six months – rice cereal, then pureed vegetables and fruits are ideal.
  • Include iron-containing foods in first foods to prevent iron deficiency. These include iron-fortified cereals, pureed meat and poultry dishes and some pureed vegetables. These can be introduced in any order, along with other nutritious foods.
  • Ensure that spoon foods are of acceptable texture (no hard foods) and taste.
  • Do not add sugar to infant foods as this increases the risk of dental cavities.
  • Do not add salt to foods for infants.
  • By 12 months of age, children should be eating a variety of foods from the different food groups, as described in Eating for Healthy Babies and Toddlers
This article was written by Melanie Hearse and adapted for Kidpsot, New Zealand's favourite parenting resource for Early Life Nutrition.
 
Breastfeeding is best for babies and provides many benefits. Combined breast and bottle feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of your own breast milk. Always consult your doctor, midwife or health care professional for advice about feeding your baby. This post is part of the Early Life Nutrition story.
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