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Optimizing Gen A’s brain development

By MYLENE MENDOZA-DAYRIT, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 24, 2021 6:00 am

The most materially endowed and tech-savvy generation yet, Generation Alpha (Gen A) — those born from 2010 onwards — will be considered the largest generation in the history of the world. And so, it is important to understand and focus on them, as they will be the future leaders.

Brain development during zero to five years of these children should be supported by the right nutrition. It is critical because 90% of brain development and brain connections happen during this period.

We had the chance to learn more about this in an exclusive interview with nutritionist-dietitian Nieves Serra, and Dr. Ryan S. Uy, a Developmental-Behavioral pediatrician from Washington, D.C.

  Brain development during zero to five years of childhood should be supported by the right nutrition.

Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics is a medical specialty concerned with the emotional, developmental, and behavioral needs of children and their families. Nieves has four decades of experience in the dietary department of hospitals, and is a professor in nursing, HRM and nutrition.

THE PHILIPPINE STAR: What are the biggest setbacks Filipino parents have in the brain development of their child?

DR. RYAN UY: There is little public understanding of the importance of a child's first years of life. In addition, government investment is low in early childhood development initiatives.

It is important to highlight the importance of early childhood development through education and awareness campaigns. Failure to optimize brain development early in life has long-term consequences with respect to education, job potential, and adult mental health. These long-term ramifications are the ultimate cost to society. Governments and society are beginning to realize the importance of investing in the earliest years of a child’s life.

Identify four myths when it comes to parenting toddlers that affect their brain development.

UY:  Myth No. 1: Intelligence is mostly “inherited” and child development is predetermined by nature.

Many parents believe that a child's intelligence level is already in the genes and that there is little proof of what the environment can do to change a child’s capabilities.

While it is true that genes do establish a range of a child’s intellectual potential, this range is very wide. Where a child will fall within the range is greatly affected by environmental factors such as quality stimulation, positive experiences, and adequate nutrition.

Nutritional deficiency impairs brain development if the deficiency occurs during the time period when neurodevelopment is high. Many studies have shown that nutritional supplementation and psychosocial stimulation together result in greater improvements in child development than either intervention alone.

In the brain development process, neural connections are shaped by genes and life experiences — namely optimal nutrition, protection, and stimulation from caregivers.

This combination of nature and nurture establishes the foundation of a child's future.  That’s the reason why early brain development in a child is crucial since the majority of the neural connections happen at this stage.

Myth No. 2: Supporting your kid's brain development is only important when your child starts schooling.

Most parents believe that it’s only important to support their kid’s brain development when they start going to school. But research confirms that the first five years of life are the critical period for brain development. During this period, most brain processes will have an impact on brain development.

Like fiber optics that connect us to the internet, billions of brain cells called neurons send electrical signals to communicate with each other. Connections form circuits and become the basic architecture of brain architecture. Through repeated use, circuits and connections multiply at a really fast pace.

A child’s brain makes more than one million neural connections every second. The faster the connections happen, the better it is for the child for long-term brain growth and development.

A child’s experiences and environment dictate which circuits and connections get more used. A good example of this is when a child is more exposed to different languages at an early age; he tends to become a good linguist when he matures. This is because the circuit and connection to language was strengthened through repeated use, so the child’s ability to learn a certain language becomes easier.

A child’s experiences and environment dictate which circuits and connections get more used.

Connections that are used more grow stronger and more permanent. For a child to develop into a healthy, capable, and successful adult, brain development in the early years of childhood is crucial.

NIEVES SIERRA: Myth No. 3: Adopting healthy eating habits is difficult.

Nutrition is crucial in the brain development process. If the brain is not getting the nutrition it needs, the brain output is also affected. That’s why alpha-lipids in milk help make a child think fast.

For Filipino families, all you need is to follow the Pinggang Pinoy. It’s a new and easy way to understand food guides since it uses a familiar food-plate model to convey the right food proportions on a per-meal basis. It also serves as a visual tool to help Pinoys adopt healthy eating habits at mealtimes.

Myth No. 4: The child will develop his own eating habits if he is smart.

Parents and caregivers are not only role models, but they are enablers. If parents and caregivers support brain development correctly at an early age through proper nutrition and stimulation, then the child will create smart choices when he/she grows older. Entice your children to eat healthier; make sure you lead by example and start small.

What nutrients are most important for brain development?

SIERRA: I cannot overemphasize the importance of adequate nutrition in early brain development. Phospholipids are found in the brain in large amounts. They help regulate mood and regulate the permeability of the membrane.

A child’s brain makes more than one million neural connections every second. It is busy forming connections that allow brain cells to communicate with one another. The faster the connections happen, the better it is for the child for long-term brain growth and development.

Children need the right nutrients to help support the critical brain process. In fact, in recent studies, there are five major phospholipids found in human milk: sphingomyelin, phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylserine, and phosphatidylinositol that speed up brain connections through myelination.

The food sources of phospholipids are the following: eggs, organ meats like liver, lean meats, fish, shellfish, cereal grains, soybeans, dairy products, and milk, of course, is very important. Now there are milk products on the market with alpha-lipids that contain the five major phospholipids crucial for brain development. It also contains DHA, AA, choline, lutein, zinc, and iron.