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Smart Start: Infant Nutrition Essentials

Gloria Bucco


Optimal nutrition for infants, both before and after birth, is an area of research that is still unfolding. A recent study demonstrated for the first time that early nutrition can significantly influence mental ability in later life.1 Researchers found that premature infants who were fed a standard milk formula rather than a nutrient-enriched formula had reduced verbal IQ scores by the time they were seven to eight years old. The results were particularly evident in boys.

After the post-World War II bottle-feeding revolution, mothers are happily returning to breast-feeding, the healthiest choice for a child. Breast milk is a substance that is uniquely formulated to meet an infant's growth requirements. Initially, breast milk is high in fat and fatty acids, which are important to early development needs of the brain and the immune and nervous systems. Later, the fat content of breast milk decreases and is replaced with protein and carbohydrates, which support the rapid growth and development experienced during this age. Breast milk also has more iron, vitamins A and C, niacin, potassium and the right amino acids for growth than any natural or formulated substitute. In fact, its precise mix of enzymes, long-chain fatty acids and proteins is so complex it cannot be duplicated exactly from the modified milk of other mammals or created from mixtures of plant-based materials.

One thing is certain, however, the essential fatty acids in breast milk are fundamental for an infant's neural development. Evidence suggests that term and premature infants require the omega-3 essential fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) for ideal growth and development.2,3

"Essential fatty acids are utilized by all body tissues but especially the brain," explains Michael Murray, N.D., author of Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. "They are necessary to the manufacture of structural components of cell membranes and important hormone-like substances known as prostaglandins."

Essential Fatty Acids
Essential Fatty Acids - sometimes referred to as vitamin F due to their necessity - are more like vitamins than fats. They are "essential" because the body cannot manufacture them; they must come from the diet. Essential fatty acids fall into two categories: omega-3 and omega-6. In addition to supporting proper growth and development, they perform a variety of functions in the body including:
Transporting the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).
Helping manage cholesterol.
Regulating body temperature.
Helping control blood pressure.
Being essential to healthy skin, hair and nails.

Brain Development
After a baby is born, the primary source of DHA is breast milk. Although researchers have yet to clearly define how DHA affects brain functions, they know it is required for the development of the cerebral cortex - the thin, folded layers of the brain's hemispheres that house billions of brain cells. Numerous studies show that babies who are breast-fed have better brain development than their bottle-fed counterparts. A recent study in The Lancet corroborated these findings.4 Researchers found significantly higher amounts of DHA in the brains of breast-fed babies than in formula-fed babies. Higher concentrations of DHA in the brains of breast-fed infants may explain their improved neurodevelopment when compared with formula-fed infants.5

In addition to its important role in brain development, DHA plays a vital function in developing vision sharpness. DHA is found in high concentrations in the photoreceptors of the retina, and supplies lipids (fats) to the retinal membrane. It has been noted that when levels of DHA are too low, abnormal visual functioning occurs.6 In many infant formulas there is little or no DHA. Even the breast milk of vegan women, who eat no animal products, contains substantially greater amounts of DHA than cow's milk formulas.7

If breast-feeding isn't possible, one study recommends a minimum daily requirement of 30 mg. of DHA be added to the formulas of term infants to prevent a brain deficiency of the essential fatty acid.8 Murray recommends adding 200 mg. of DHA a day to infant formula. Some physicians believe that a healthy baby on breast milk does not need additional supplements. Most parents, however, are more comfortable giving a simple formula that covers an infant's RDAs. A liquid vitamin-mineral supplement is appropriate for the first year.

According to Elson Haas, M.D., parents should also be aware that infants can overdose on some vitamins. Vitamin A toxicity is probably most common. Haas recommends that parents do not overuse vitamins A and D, cod liver oil (which is high in both A and D), or the minerals calcium, phosphorus and iron.

Signs of Vitamin Deficiency
Infantile scurvy is a condition caused by an inadequate intake of vitamin C, usually resulting from receiving cow's milk formulas, which are deficient in this vitamin. This disease usually occurs between six and 12 months of age. Early symptoms include irritability, poor appetite and failure to gain weight. Because vitamin C is necessary for the formation of connective tissue (the tissue that holds the body's structures together), scurvy may also cause bone abnormalities in the rib cage and in the long bones of the legs. Scurvy also results in poor wound healing.

References: [1] Lucas A. British Medical Journal, Nov. 1998.[2] Uauy R. et al. J Pediatr, 1992; 120:S168-80. [3] Makrides M. et al. Lancet, 1995; 345:1463-68. [4] Makrides M., 1995. [5] Makrides M. et al. Am J Clin Nutr, 1994; 60:189-94

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