The childhood years are developmentally critical, setting the stage for lifelong health and well-being. Pound for pound, children need more nutrients than adults to support their rapid growth and development. In early childhood the immune and neurological systems are still developing, requiring adequate nutritional support to fight disease, build brainpower and assure healthy eyesight. During their school years children are gaining their permanent teeth, building bone density that will carry them through the rest of their lives, and continuing to strengthen cognitive performance. Growing children must have the appropriate nutrients in the right amounts to support the healthy development of their bodies and minds.
As the brain continues to grow and develop throughout early childhood and adolescence, maintaining brain health through good nutrition is critical. During the formative grade school years children undergo dramatic transformation in physical growth, intellectual development, social learning and skill building. Optimal nutrition fuels healthy development of the mind and body, equipping the child to develop its full potential. Studies have shown that nutrition can enhance academic performance in school-aged children and help them reach their mental and cognitive potential. Micronutrients that play important roles in brain performance and learning include B vitamins, iron and omega-3 DHA.
Learn more about key nutrients: Omega-3 DHA
Schuchardt JP, et al. (2010) Eur J Pediatr 169:2;149-64
DHA is a major structural fat in the brain, accounting for up to 97 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain3. Furthermore, DHA is a nutrient critical for optimal brain development and cognitive function throughout life. DHA is therefore important for children and their developing brains. Accumulating evidence from clinical studies suggests that low dietary intakes of long chain omega-3 fatty acids, and DHA in particular, may have a detrimental effect on children’s behavior and cognitive development., Unfortunately, the potential benefits of DHA for learning and behavior are often not realized because DHA intake by children is low. The limited availability of DHA in foods typically consumed by children has resulted in a shortfall of DHA. Because average daily intake falls well below amounts recommended by national and international experts, a DHA dietary supplement and foods fortified with DHA represent viable alternatives to increase DHA consumption.
Everyday interactions with other children, including playgroups or daycare, further test a child’s developing immune system. Most parents of preschool children know the frustration of nursing their young child through frequent infections such as coughs and colds, flu, pink eye, earache and sore throat. This is because the immature immune system is still learning to recognize and respond to a variety of germs, and as a consequence, young children are more susceptible to disease and have more frequent infections than adults. Proper nutrition is essential for building up an effective immune response. Children may be at risk of deficiency of nutrients that support immunity including vitamins A, C, D, and E; the minerals iron, zinc and selenium; and omega-3 DHA. Inadequate intake and status of these nutrients may lead to suppressed immunity, which can predispose children to infections and possibly contribute to malnutrition.
Children ages 1–5 years have low DHA intakes ranging from 30–50 mg/day.,,,, This is because the primary dietary sources of DHA are fatty fish and organ meats, which are not popular food choices for young children., DHA has demonstrated benefits to immune function in children with as little as 14-21mg DHA per day. In a clinical study, toddlers consuming a formula with 130mg DHA per day had a lower incidence of respiratory illness compared to those receiving formula without DHA. In another study healthy school children supplemented with a DHA enriched dairy product showed fewer episodes and a shorter duration of upper respiratory tract infections than children not consuming a DHA enriched dairy product.
Early childhood is a period of rapid eye development with visual acuity improving to near adult levels by four years of age. Healthy eyes and vision play a fundamental role in how young children learn as well as perceive the world around them. A proper balance of nutrients is essential for optimal eye development. Shortages of key nutrients can result in vision problems and developmental delays. Nutrients that support eye health in young children include omega-3 DHA, lutein, zeaxanthin and vitamins C and E.
To support young children’s rapidly growing bodies, it is important to ensure they receive optimal levels of vitamins and minerals to maximize their peak bone mass. Peak bone mass determines the resistance and susceptibility to bone fracture. Proper nutrition results in higher peak bone mass during infancy, which lays the groundwork for maintaining bone health throughout life. Key nutrients for bone health include minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, fluorine, magnesium, and vitamins C, D and K.
Vitamin D plays a critical role in maintaining the mineral balance in the body and is required for the absorption of calcium and phosphate to support healthy bone formation. Studies have shown that vitamin D supplementation in infants and young children is associated with higher bone mineral mass in adolescence.,,, However, vitamin D does not work alone in supporting healthy bone formation, vitamin K and C also play important roles.