Prenatal: Nutrition for optimal learning, memory enhancement, and brain development starts before your child is even born. Melissa Diane Smith, a Tucson-based nutritionist and health educator, and author of Going against the Grain and the national bestselling Syndrome X says, “When you are pregnant, it is important to eat a diet as nutrient rich as possible, especially nutrients that are important for optimal brain function such as the B vitamins, zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium. This means emphasizing poultry, meats, and a wide variety of nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also important to avoid sweets and alcohol, which deplete nutrient supplies.”
Smith adds that it is vital for pregnant women to get enough DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), either from fatty fish such as wild salmon or from taking supplements. “DHA is critical for normal brain development, and lack of DHA is associated with learning deficits (as well as reduced visual function),” she says.
Babies and Toddlers: Once your child is born, Smith advises that you “do the thing that confers many benefits and seems to make a huge difference in brain development and attention and memory skills: breastfeed your child.”
Dr. Brewer agrees. “A variety of studies have shown the beneficial effects of breast milk on a baby’s emotional, physical, and intellectual development. By the age of three months, the IQ of babies who are breastfed is three points higher than those fed on formula, and those who are breastfed until six months have an IQ that is six points higher than those receiving formula,” she says.
School-Age Children: Smith says if a child is having trouble with learning, mental focus, and his or her memory, the first place to look is at improving his or her diet. “Our concentration and our ability to think clearly, which are the keys to learning and memory retention, are controlled by the brain—and the brain is the first organ to suffer a lack of nutrients or lack of fuel,” she says. “Therefore, if a child is having trouble with learning, mental focus, and his or her memory, the first place to look is at improving his or her diet.”
She adds that the primary reason children could have trouble with their learning or memory skills today is because of erratic blood sugar levels (blood sugar highs followed by blood sugar lows) caused from eating sweets and refined-grain snack foods and from drinking soft drinks or even too many fruit juices. Another reason for lack of mental focus could be due to blood sugar lows caused from going too long without eating—skipping breakfast, for example.
“The fuel for the brain is glucose, or blood sugar, and poor blood sugar control is associated with impaired cognitive function. The easiest way to improve learning and memory performance is to avoid blood sugar spikes and dips and instead to provide the brain with an even, steady supply of food,” says Smith. She recommends that children avoid sweets and soft drinks and eat blood-sugar balancing meals that emphasize animal protein, some vegetables or fruits, and some nuts.
Smith advises parents to be aware of possible food sensitivities (especially to wheat), as undiagnosed food sensitivities can sometimes lead to lack of mental focus and fuzzy thinking. Lastly, kids need to get plenty of water throughout the day, since even mild dehydration causes mental performance to deteriorate.
The virtues of baby massage are extolled in many pregnancy/baby books, and the benefits cannot be ignored: infant massage helps with parent/child bonding, soothes baby’s fears, helps strengthen the immune system, and can even ease teething pains and colic. What many parents may not realize is that infant massage also contributes speed and efficiency to the function of the brain, accelerating the process of myelination—a process which begins at birth and continues in the frontal lobe into a person’s twenties. Myelin is a greasy coating around the nerves in the brain and allows these nerves to quickly conduct electrical impulses from one brain area to another. Children’s brains are naturally slow compared with adult brains because of the relative state of myelination.
In his book Tender Touch, Dr. Paul Staerker says, “Massaging a child at an early age stimulates nervous development and aids in neuromuscular coordination. By using massage you are helping to develop the child’s nervous and muscular systems.” He adds that the brain and immune system continually “talk” to one another, which explains how our state of mind influences our overall health. If your child is healthy and happy, she will be more receptive to learning than a child who is ill or suffers from an on-going ailment.
A retentive memory is a multi-faceted asset that will impact your child's overall life experiences, from early learning, to job performance, to affecting the relationships she will develop as she grows. Ensuring that your child eats a nutritious diet, gets sufficient sleep, and has fun learning are all steps parents can take to help their child not only develop good memory skills but be a healthy, happy person.