Month: July 2018
One of the wonderful gifts that comes with 4+ decades of working on the cutting edge of practical neuroscience is the many friendships developed over the years with extraordinary people who, like us, are dedicated to helping everyone (children and adults) realize their full potential. They come from many fields of endeavor – medicine, education, anthropology, social work, music, philosophy, theology, to name just a few. We are indeed blessed.
Today, I am delighted to introduce you to one of those extraordinary people, our dear friend and colleague Dr. Deborah Gordon. We’ve known Deborah for 27 years as our doctor, collaborator, and friend. She’s one of the best! What I think is exceptional about Deborah is her incredible curiosity, her need to know why, and her marvelous intellectual honesty. I’ve seen Deborah shift course several times over the years when the evidence pointed in a direction different from the one she was headed. That takes clear thinking and, most of all, humility.
Dr. Deborah Gordon graduated from the University of California San Francisco Medical School and completed a Family Practice Residency in Santa Rosa, California, where she served as Chief Resident. She has been in Southern Oregon for 30 years, and for the last 25 years has had an integrative practice emphasizing lifestyle solutions to health complaints. Deborah has a particular interest in Alzheimer’s and trained with Dr. Dale Bredesen in 2016. She lives in the country, rows competitively with Rogue Rowing Club, and raises chickens for eggs and lambs for meat.
Optimum brain physiology is an important part of being a BrainFit Kid and good nutrition is one of the pillars of optimum brain physiology. With that in mind, here’s Dr. Deborah Gordon with some thoughts on nutrition for growing children.
Food for Growing Children
I was pleased to see a “mother and baby” visit on my schedule: I love those appointments that are truly family-centered, with at least two generations included! Karen came to her appointment with her four-month old cherished and cheerful son, Tyler.
“I had hoped to nurse for a full year, but it’s just not working for me. With the house remodel and my husband’s work schedule, I just need to transition him to food. We eat great, but does that diet work for him?”
Karen’s situation was fairly simple: after loving her pregnancy, she was surprised to not enjoy nursing her baby. She had no real problems with it, and loved holding her baby son, so she stuck with it. I encouraged her to nurse for two more months, pat herself on the back for giving her son a great start, and our conversation moved on to the more challenging topic of feeding her cherished child. Karen had been raised on a standard American diet and changed herself to a nutrient rich menu several years previously, but she had no knowledge of healthy choices for children.
“He reaches for my food when I’m eating. Do children just get smaller portions of our meals? What about Fortified Rice Cereal, should that really be his first food?”
So glad you asked, and the answers are no, and no, so let’s talk. We’ll start with babies and move on to children: once they’re toddlers, the principles of healthy eating stay fairly consistent through childhood and teen years.
Babies: Nutrients and Tolerance
Tyler had already let Karen know that he understood the attraction of food: interest in what the parents are eating is a good sign of readiness for introducing foods and usually occurs at about his age, four months old. Variation can be wide, but four months is a good age to start thinking about solids: less than three months would be too young, and at six months I’d recommend solid food encouragement even without a show of interest. Waiting longer can work in some cultural settings, but also raises the risk of raising a fussy eater by exclusive reliance on nursing without inclusion in the family ritual of mealtime.
So, great, Tyler is interested and Karen is ready to start the transition, what’s next? My first choice for an infant is pureed or strained meat, better made at home for freshness but also acceptable as an actual baby food, so long as there are no additives. Without added flavorings, meat actually well suits the baby’s preference for bland tastes and digestive familiarity, after months of a fat and protein rich breast milk diet!
I remember thinking how a smashed banana would be a great treat for a baby: my daughter quickly let me know that was too strong a taste for an infant and I put bananas away for a later time. She enjoyed it a few months later.
Meat is an excellent source of protein (needed for growth), iron in an absorbable form, and zinc, and essential B vitamins: elements needed for the important tasks of building healthy brains and bodies. I recommend starting with pureed red meat for greater iron, but poultry and bland fish sources are also good protein and zinc sources. Liver would be great and children usually like it more than adults do!
To whatever extent any form of milk is continued, iron-rich foods are very important, as calcium-rich milk can lead to iron deficiencies. Karen was ready to stop nursing, so I encouraged her to visit the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation and consider whether she had the energy to make homemade infant formula or whether she wanted to switch to a commercial formula. The least problematic commercial formula is Baby’s Only Organic Formula, which is a very reasonable alternative for busy moms.
The other absolutely crucial nutrient for babies is dietary fat, a key component for brain development. The best and most well-studied source of fat for babies are egg yolks, avoiding the white until your child is one year old. Additionally, egg yolks can contain the omega-3 fatty acid known as DHA, if the yolks come from pasture-raised eggs. Another source of DHA is either fish oil or cod liver oil (which also offers vitamins A and D.) ¼ teaspoon of a fish-based oil can be stirred into yolks (which can be eaten raw) and usually enjoyed by babies.
Second only to liver, egg yolks are an excellent source of choline, key to the health of both liver and brain. Another nutrient crucial for growing children is (don’t be shocked) cholesterol. Cholesterol is a key component of every cell in the body and makes up 20 percent of the brain. Adequate cholesterol levels are assured if foods rich in both cholesterol and saturated fat are generously included in the diet, most importantly in children
By six to eight months of age, a wider variety of food can be pureed and offered to babies: vegetables, other meats, and dairy. Well-cooked rice is a perfect first grain, and all other grains can wait for that first birthday, when grains, nuts, and seeds can be introduced one at a time.
Toddlers and Children
Once children are sharing meals with the family, they can indeed eat most of the foods (not the glass of wine!) that parents and siblings are eating, with a few key differences. If your family enjoys particularly savory or spicy food, you can begin to offer stronger tastes to your infant: babies can surprise us with their adventurous palates!
Spicy curry enjoyed as a twelve-month old just might encourage a twelve-year-old to be appreciative and even curious about new foods.
A French family once stayed with us, and I worried that the dinner I planned for the adults would not suit their three children. Their mother was surprised at my concern: “Well, first of all, our children are not allowed to reject food generously cooked for them, and secondly, why would they not want to try something new?” An excellent attitude to have shared with their children!
Key nutrients for growing children include those mentioned above. Foods rich in protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol will offer needed amounts of zinc, iron, vitamins A, B and D, choline, and DHA. As a child’s diet expands, she will also naturally find the full range of other vitamins, antioxidants, and calories.
The essentials of a healthy diet for a growing child are an expansion of what we fed our weaning infant and in many ways similar to what we eat as adults. Let’s go through an overview, in different categories, each category with its own caution in italics.
- Protein is essential for children and adults, a healthy serving at each meal.
- A serving is healthy if it is a bit bigger than the palm of the diner, and
- Contains the fats that are naturally part of that protein, and
- Best if raised in a healthy way: wild or pasture-raised meat and poultry, wild-caught and cold-water fish.
- Plant-based proteins do not provide all the nutrients needed by a growing child and require significant supplementation of iron, zinc, and essential fatty acids to avoid malnutrition. Soy in particular is poorly suited to the special nutritional needs of growing children.
- Fats are needed, particularly those derived from or included in healthy foods, but should not be cooked at high temperatures that result in excessive browning or crisping
- The fats in meat or in the skin of poultry are valuable and often include collagen, useful for healthy joints.
- Full-fat dairy is the only smart choice in dairy, which can be enjoyed fresh (milk, cream) or fermented (butter, cheese.) Please avoid all low fat dairy and all butter substitutes.
- Healthy oils can be eaten raw or gently cooked and include olive, avocado and coconut oils; nut oils can be eaten raw and should be cold-pressed. So-called “healthy” oils made from vegetables (corn) or seeds (sunflower, canola) are actually not healthy: they are extremely heat-sensitive and thus often damaged in industrial preparation, food processing or cooking, and should be avoided. Deep-fried commercial foods are almost always prepared in fragile and thus damaged vegetable oils; homemade deep-fried foods can be a big hassle but not a problem IF you have access to healthy lard or don’t mind the taste of coconut oil.
- Nuts are wonderful sources of protein and fat together. I like to soak my nuts for 24 hours in salty water and dehydrate until they’re crispy; raw nuts are well tolerated by some. Nut butters can be healthy if they are simple nuts and salt, without added oils or sugar. Roasted nuts are usually roasted in vegetable oils: avoid! Hmm… dry roasted nuts are an unknown: if you roast them at home, keep the temperature below 175 degrees. Roasting at high heats can damage the oils in the nuts. PEANUTS are not nuts, and should be introduced carefully if there is a family history of peanut allergy.
- Carbohydrates can be valuable sources of vitamins, phytonutrients, and dietary fiber. The main difference between adults and children is that children benefit from greater proportions of carbohydrate calories in their diet.
- Vegetables are the least controversial area: all sorts of vegetables in all colors, cooked and raw and drenched in butter to entice if necessary!
- Fruits can be enjoyed more freely by children than by adults. Consider fruits as desserts, so they can follow a protein-rich meal or snack. For consideration of fruit juices, see “SODA” below.
- Grains should be carefully prepared; again the Weston A Price Foundation offers wise advice about soaking before cooking (from steel-cut oats to brown rice.) Sensitive individuals, sensitive in any way (emotionally or in their physiology) might consider complete avoidance of gluten (wheat, rye, barley) for one to six months to evaluate its possible effect on health. Boxed breakfast cereals not only lack nutritional value, they also contain artificial and overly processed ingredients and should be avoided as much as possible.
- Sweet foods are a treat to enjoy in limited amounts, and always in the setting of a full and wholesome meal. Sweet SODA is something that need never cross health-conscious lips! Mineral water sweetened with fruit juice is a great alternative! Sweeteners should benatural (honey, maple syrup) and limited. Chocolate is fine for children, the darker the better, just like with adults!
Supplements for children might include fish or cod liver oil (unless they eat fish regularly), vitamin C (when colorful vegetables and fruits aren’t eaten), and vitamin D to keep blood levels optimal (40-60 ng/mL). Other supplements might be guided by blood tests: children should be tested every year or two for anemia, vitamin D levels, and other areas of individual concern.
“Wow, I guess that wasn’t a simple question!” I know Karen will be mulling this over for a while and I have every confidence that her weaned baby will be well-fed!
Let’s talk about teaching a young child how to read. People have debated back and forth for decades as to which reading method is the best one to use – teaching phonics or teaching whole sight words. So, which one do we believe is best? The truth is that both have their place and both methods work if they are done correctly. Some children learn best with one, some with the other, and most children will at some point use both.
Before getting into our approach to reading, I want to emphasize that reading is a neurological function just like understanding, speaking, writing, and walking. Therefore, the first step in teaching a child how to read is to provide plenty of opportunity to develop good basic brain organization in the first year of life. If a child’s brain is healthy and well organized, the method used to teach reading becomes much less important because the child will be ready to learn no matter which method you choose to use.
Now, having said that, when it comes to babies or toddlers there is no question in my mind that teaching the whole word is the more sensible and effective way to go. Think about it, children learn to understand spoken language by hearing whole words over and over again! Eventually, as their understanding increases and becomes more sophisticated they begin to understand abstract thought and emotions. We do not speak to children by spelling out a letter or using one sound of a letter at a time. We say the whole word, right?
Recognizing a whole word in print or written form is the visual equivalent of the spoken form. Letters by themselves have no meaning. So, with the very young child showing a whole word instead of letters or sounds is best because it means something to the child. We just need to make sure we follow the same principles that we follow when developing understanding. Remember them? See them here.
When it comes to teaching reading, we want to make sure we use Frequency, Intensity, and Duration in a way that is appropriate for the child’s level of development. How do we do that? Let’s go through it step by step.
INTENSITY – The younger the child, the more emphasis we need to place on intensity. Why? A young baby does not yet have well developed visual and auditory pathways to the brain. Therefore, the information needs to be big and bright so the message can easily reach the brain. So the words should be in the color red on a white background. And, they need to be big.
Can you see how much easier it is to read the word Mommy when it is big and red? We want to always make it easier for a child to learn. The younger the child, the higher the intensity needs to be. It even needs to be bigger than it is above. Let’s say 1 ½” to 2” for a baby or young toddler.
FREQUENCY – The next step is to show the words very frequently. High frequency. Children first understand the words that they hear most often. Words like his or her name, mommy, daddy, no, nurse, hug, kiss, bottle, water, and so on. Again, the same principle applies to written words. Your child might need to see and hear the word twenty, thirty, or forty times before she begins to recognize it. The younger the child the higher the frequency needs to be.
DURATION – When it comes to duration, it is the opposite of intensity and frequency. The younger the child the shorter the duration should be. Attention span is directly related to brain organization and brain maturity. We cannot expect a 6 month old to have the same attention span as a 1 year old, and the 1 year old does not have the same attention span as a 2 year old. This is because they are not at the same level of brain organization. Young children will switch their attention from one thing to the next faster than an older child. Therefore, you should only show a few words at a time. Ideally, we want to stop showing the words before the child is ready to stop. It is good to leave the child with an “I want to see more!” feeling. When we do this they are eager to see the material the next time around. So, only show 1 or 2 words at a time.
If you pay attention to how you use Intensity, Frequency, and Duration you will be well on your way to developing a happy reader and learner.
Here are a few more things that are important to pay attention to:
- If you are going to show words to a baby or young toddler, it is more fun if you include pictures. However, never put the picture and the word on the same page. The only way we can be certain that the child is looking at what we want them to see is to show one thing at a time. So, first show a picture of Mommy and say Mommy. Then, show the word Mommy and say Mommy. One followed by the other, not side by side.
- Pictures, just like the words, should be big and precise. When showing the picture of Mommy there should only be Mommy, not Mommy in a group of other people. The picture should be pasted to paper or cardboard of a contrasting background. If the picture is colorful, a white background is best. Make it clear!
- Make the material you are showing pretty and of good quality. Children are attracted to bright, colorful, nicely made things. No one likes to look at things that are sloppy.
- Show material with enthusiasm! If you are excited to teach your child, she will be excited to learn. It is that simple!
- Resist the urge to test your child! Teaching is input, not output. We are all guilty of showing a book to a young child and then asking them to point at different pictures to see if they know them. We have been trained by our schooling that output must follow input so we know if the child is learning. Relax. Trust your child. Remember, if your child is having fun and is eager to look at the material, she will learn it and at her own pace!
Finally, keep in mind that if you are having fun so will your child! Enjoy the ride!
If you’re looking for a great first book for a newborn then look no further than Look, Look! Babies are born with limited vision thus you want to expose them to books with clear, high-contrast images to stimulate and develop their vision.
Name of Book:
Summary of Book:
Look, Look! Children run, fish swim, stars shine . . . all for baby’s eyes to see. This sturdy board book, full of high-contrast black-and-white cut-paper art perfect for staring at, is just the thing for the eyes of the youngest babies. A few words in curving red type on each spread describe the scenes – a car races, a cat stretches, flowers bloom – and extend the book’s age appeal so that it will be fascinating to older babies, too. Striking and stylish, Look Look! is the ideal first board book for babies just beginning to look and learn. Peter Linenthal is an illustrator who has taught art in elementary schools for twenty years. (Summary courtesy of goodreads.com)
Recommended Age Range:
Newborn – 3 months. Note this is a younger age range than is listed by Barnes & Noble. They list the range as 3 months – 3 years. We find this book to be ideal right from birth due to it’s large black & white images and large print in red. We find that older babies & toddlers may have moved on from the simplicity of this book.
Why We Like It:
This book checks off all of our priorities for ideal books for very young babies.
As a reminder, we recommend books that fit the following criteria for newborn – 3 month olds: At this stage the most important thing is to have books with bright, big, contrasting pictures or shapes. They should be simple, only one picture per page, and the picture should have few details. The written information is not as important. Short duration is key here, so the book should have no words, one word, a couplet, or a phrase per page so you can flip through it fast. At this age the visual stimulation is more important than the auditory information.
Given that your priority in the first three months of life is visual stimulation, the large and interesting black & white photos in Look, Look! are ideal. There are limited words on a page and the ideas are very simple which makes it easy to read quickly. The board book also makes it easy to flip through quickly and also stands up to young babies who may be more interested in chewing on the book ;-).
This is also a great book to use for tummy time as the images catch a babies attention and provide a good distraction for baby and encourage baby to lift their head during tummy time as they get older and gain strength.
This is definitely one we think should be in every baby’s library from the start!