The first 1,000 days starts from conception (when you fall pregnant) to when your baby is 2 years old. This is the period of rapid brain growth and development. Experiences during this time strongly influences a baby’s development and will have lifelong consequences on the health and wellbeing of your baby.
People use to think that babies and young children didn’t genuinely learn until they were older. However, there is more recent evidence about the significance of the first 1,000 days, and more and more research is emerging.
During the first 1,000 days, brain development is shaped by a baby’s social and physical experiences, and they have the greatest capacity to adapt to different social and physical environments (medically known as ‘neuroplasticity’).
Despite this evidence, Australians don’t yet have a strong understanding of the importance of the first 1,000 days. About 1 in 5 Australian children are at risk of child development issues when they go into kindergarten. Some research shows that these children don’t usually catch up over time, but fall further behind.
So, more needs to be done to focus on the first 1,000 days because of the lifelong influences on a baby’s health and development.
From the moment you think about trying to conceive you should be thinking about keeping a healthy lifestyle and eating well to give your baby a healthy start.
Nutrition pre-conception and during pregnancy
It is well-researched that a woman’s nutrition can affect her baby’s mental health, food or flavour preferences (babies develop a sense of smell and taste early on) and a baby’s risk of developing chronic diseases such as obesity or diabetes.
Eating healthy while you’re trying to conceive and during pregnancy. Eating a variety of healthy foods will also expose your baby to different tastes and flavours which may prevent them from becoming picky eaters later in life.
Substance use (alcohol and tobacco smoking) during pregnancy
Exposure to tobacco and alcohol during pregnancy can lead to impaired brain development and growth, and birth defects.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been linked to miscarriage, premature births and low birth weight. Because alcohol can affect the development and growth of a baby from early on in a pregnancy and can pass into breast milk, no alcohol is the safest option when you’re trying to get pregnant, during pregnancy and when you’re breastfeeding. There is no safe time or amount of alcohol during these stages.
Smoking, including second-hand smoke, can affect a baby’s growth and cause premature birth. Thousands of toxic chemicals from tobacco smoke can flow to the placenta and reduce the amount of nutrients and oxygen that gets to an unborn baby.
Quitting smoking before you fall pregnant is ideal, but quitting at any point during pregnancy will have health benefits, especially if women are able to quit within the first trimester.
Exposure to tobacco smoke in a baby’s early years can affect lung function and increase the risk of asthma. If you, your partner or family members are smokers, avoid smoking near your baby or toddler.
Stress during pregnancy
It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious during your pregnancy and some stress can be healthy by preparing your baby for the ‘real world’. But experiencing high levels of stress over a long period of time is not healthy.
During pregnancy, a foetus uses physical and mental cues from their mother to ‘predict’ the kind of world they will be born into and adapts accordingly. High levels of stress during pregnancy sends a message to your unborn baby that the world is dangerous and they will struggle when they experience social or emotional stresses as a baby or child. They may be hard to settle, easily overreact and have difficulty focusing at school.
High or ongoing levels of stress during pregnancy can also affect a baby’s growth and the length of your pregnancy.
Nutrition in infancy
For the first 6 months of life, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended, where the infant only receives breastmilk. Breastmilk contains all the needed vitamins, proteins, fats and antibodies. Breastmilk helps babies fight off illness and infection, builds a healthy digestive system and is linked to higher intelligence, lower incidence of allergies and lower chances of childhood obesity.
From 6 months old when solid foods can be introduced, it is recommended that breastfeeding continue alongside solid foods. Introduce a variety of nutritious foods, such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and proteins. Avoid sugary drinks and foods that are high in sugar, fat or salt.
From this early age, infants and toddlers also learn eating behaviours and attitudes from their parents and family. For example, letting an infant avoid certain foods because they don’t like it, watching TV or using mobile devices during mealtimes, or using food as a ‘reward’ for good behaviour can lead to poor nutrition and eating habits that will be difficult to change when infants are older.