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How Nutrition Impacts Early Childhood Development

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

Poor nutrition in early childhood can significantly impair healthy growth and development. This lesson will discuss the impact of nutrition on early childhood development and provide examples of poor versus healthy eating habits.

Eat Your Vegetables!

We've all heard our parents utter these three little words while staring down at something on our dinner plates that did not look all that appealing. As we grew into adults, however, we came to understand the importance of good nutrition and the role it plays in ensuring we stay healthy. Those little green vegetables have taken on a new importance.

In a nutshell, nutrition consists of the foods and beverages we consume to provide fuel that our bodies need to function. The nutritional value of the foods and beverages we consume is dependent upon what types of substances we consume. For example, someone whose diet consists primarily of fast food meals and carbonated sodas is not eating nutritiously, whereas someone who is conscious about eating a well-balanced diet high in fruits and vegetables likely is eating nutritiously.

Nutrition in Early Childhood

Although eating a well-balanced and nutritious diet is important throughout the course of our lives, it is especially critical in early childhood. On average, preschoolers between the ages of 2 and 5 grow between 6 to 9 inches and gain between 12 to 15 pounds. Significant brain development occurs as well. Instilling healthy eating habits and providing good nutritional choices is extremely important to ensure normal development in a number of areas including:

  • Cognitive development - this is development of the brain and includes the ability for children to develop language skills, gain short and long-term memory, and make connections.
  • Physical development - this is the actual physical growth of a child including height and weight.
  • Emotional and social development - the ability for children to mature and form relationships with others.

Let's take a look at how nutritional choices can influence early childhood development in both a positive and negative way.

Early Childhood Nutrition: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Good Nutritional Habits

Parents who reinforce the importance of good nutritional choices in early childhood are more likely to have children who are on track developmentally. Cognitively, children who eat nutritiously in early childhood are:

  • More likely to do better in school
  • More likely to score higher on tests
  • Less likely to have speech and language delays

Children who eat nutritiously are also more likely to grow and gain weight faster. They are physically stronger and able to fight off illnesses more quickly. Finally, children who eat well-balanced meals seem to be advanced both emotionally and socially. The simple act of being involved in family meals at the table helps them to develop social skills that are essential to forming friendships in preschool.

Poor Nutritional Habits

Poor nutritional habits in early childhood are not always caused by parental neglect. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can be a considerable expense for families that have restricted incomes. These families may not be able to afford frequent trips to the grocery store for well-balanced meals, and find it cheaper and easier to choose fast food alternatives, which in turn, have lower nutritional value. Children that suffer from poor nutrition in early childhood can:

  • Develop nutritional deficiencies in iron and iodine, which can cause cognitive, physical, and social/emotional developmental delays
  • Be more susceptible to obesity
  • Be more susceptible to disease and take longer to recover from illnesses
  • Be more likely to develop anxiety issues and learning disabilities
  • Miss more days from school
  • Develop academic performance issues

The Role of Parents and Caretakers

Because young children are not yet capable of understanding what exactly constitutes nutritious or healthy eating, the role of caretakers and parents is crucial in instilling healthy habits that will provide the foundation for a lifetime of making healthy food choices. As such, parents and caretakers are advised to:

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