Nutrition within the first 1,000 days of childhood are pivotal in a child’s neurodevelopment and lifelong health, according to an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement.

“Healthy, normal neurodevelopment is a complex process involving cellular and structural changes in the brain that proceed in a specified sequence,” wrote Sara Jane Schwarzenberg , MD and Michael K. Georgieff , MD, both of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, Minneapolis, and the AAP Committee on Nutrition. “Changes that are too rapid or too slow in one part of the brain may result in the failure of crucial pathway connections to other parts of the brain. Timing is crucial; once a particular developmental sequence fails, it may not be possible to retrieve all the lost function,” the investigators and committee noted in a report published in Pediatrics (Pediatrics. 2018; 141[2]:e20173716).

The medical literature shows that the most active period of neural development occurs in the first 1,000 days of life, that is, the first 2 years. During this early developmental period, structures and processes develop that influence behavior and provide a basis for later-developing structures, ranging from auditory and visual systems to myelination that affects the speed of processing to brain circuits involved in social development. Clearly, proper nutrition is needed to ensure that this developmental period is not negatively altered.

The importance of macronutrients was highlighted in a study of rural Guatemalan children during 1969-1989 who received high-calorie or low-calorie protein supplements. Children who received the high-calorie/high protein supplements before age 2 years had higher test scores, better reading and vocabulary skills, and faster information processing abilities, compared with their low-calorie/low-protein counterparts.

Like the low-calorie/low-protein Guatemalans, there are many populations that lack access to high-quality macronutrient sources or have access to only low-quality macronutrients. In the United States in 2015, 16.6% of households (6.4 million) were food insecure. This was even more pronounced in households with incomes below the poverty line, with 36.8% being food insecure, according to studies from the Department of Agriculture.

Food insecurity is not limited to macronutrients but extends to micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals like zinc; iron; choline; folate; iodine; vitamins A, D, B6, and B12; and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids. A lack of any of these micronutrients in early childhood can lead to neurodevelopmental issues later in life, Dr. Schwarzenberg, Dr. Georgieff, and the committee emphasized. An important source of micronutrients is human milk, provided by breastfeeding. Studies have shown that breastfeeding of preterm and term infants improves cognitive performance, compared with infants who consume formula ( J Pediatr. 2016;177:133-9.e1 ; Curr Opin Pediatr. 2016;28[4]:559-66 ).

Because proper consumption of macronutrients and micronutrients is so important, a number of government-sponsored programs exist that provide nutritional support to women, infants, and young children. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is one of the most important programs, helping 53% of children under the age of 1 year. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also supplies economic aid to buy nutritious foods; it kept approximately 4.9 million children out of poverty in 2012, the researchers said. SNAP Nutrition Education, a partnership between SNAP and the Department of Agriculture, gives SNAP participants and eligible nonparticipants skills and information to help them to make healthy food choices with limited money.

The article highlights some important information, but is not an exhaustive discussion of the AAP policy statement . To make the information from the policy statement more applicable, Dr. Schwarzenberg, Dr. Georgieff, and the committee provided 10 takeaway recommendations for pediatricians.

1. Be knowledgeable about breastfeeding and help breastfeeding mothers. The AAP recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life and to continue breastfeeding with the addition of food for at least the first year of life, and even after that if the mother and child so desire.

2. Advocate at the local, state, and federal levels to preserve and strengthen nutritional and assistance programs focusing on prenatal and neonatal nutrition. This can help support proper neurodevelopment and minimize negative environmental factors.

3. Openly discuss proper nutritions effects on infant neurodevelopment with parents. Know which nutrients are at risk in the breastfed infant after 6 months, such as zinc, iron, and vitamin D. A good resource is “Pediatric Nutrition, 7th edition” (Itasca, Ill. American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014).

4. Convey that eating healthy is a positive choice, not just an avoidance of unhealthy foods.

5. Inform food pantries and soup kitchens that the food packages and meals they provide should have higher levels of macronutrients and micronutrients.

6. Encourage parents to make use of programs like WIC and SNAP, and advocate for removing barriers that parents face in enrolling or reenrolling in such programs.

7. Oppose changes in eligibility to assistance programs that would adversely affect children.

8. Anticipate neurodevelopmental issues with children and address the issue early. For example, educate yourself about which nutrients are at risk for deficiency and at what ages.

9. Work with obstetricians to encourage improvements in maternal diet, which will affect the micronutrients available for the developing fetus.

10. Become advocates in the “Hunger Community,” working to reduce hunger at the local level across the United States. A chart in the article lists organizations focused on hunger, such as Feeding America , 1,000 Days , Share Our Strength , and others.

There was no external funding for this research, and the authors had no relevant financial disclosures or potential conflicts of interest to report.