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Child Development in the First Five Years Part 3: Proper Nutrition is Key

This post is Part 3 in a four-part series on how rest, nutrition, and a healthy home life help babies, toddlers, and preschoolers grow into healthy, successful kindergarten students.

Read the first post in the series here.


Proper rest, good nutrition, and a safe and supportive home life each have a direct impact on a young child’s readiness for and success in school. Nourishment is critical for child development from birth to age five, and many state and federal organizations exist to ensure that all children have access to the nutritional resources they need.

Good Nutrition in the First Five Years
The first five years of life are crucial for a child’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development. Proper nourishment begins during pregnancy, and it continues throughout childhood.

A child’s exact nutritional needs change over time, but because a child’s brain develops so rapidly in the first few years, it’s vital that children get enough protein and other nutrients. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families says that:

“Brain development is most sensitive to a baby's nutrition between mid-gestation and two years of age. Children who are malnourished--not just fussy eaters but truly deprived of adequate calories and protein in their diet--throughout this period do not adequately grow, either physically or mentally.”– (Source)

Adequate physical and mental growth in the early years directly affects a child’s likelihood of success from kindergarten through high school graduation and beyond. The No Kid Hungry campaign says, “Poor early childhood nutrition can negatively impact a child’s physical and emotional development in both the short- and long-term and limit adult achievement and productivity.” (Source)

It’s amazing that adult achievement is influenced by something as far removed as basic nourishment in infancy. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, however, says that malnourished infants suffer long-lasting issues ranging from cognitive deficits to slower language and motor skills development. Malnourished infants often have lower IQs and poorer school performance than their well-nourished peers. (Source)

Though a newborn’s needs are different from those of a four-year-old, access to nourishing foods is critical in the years when the brain is developing the most rapidly. Unfortunately, not all babies and young children have access to well-rounded, nourishing meals at home. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), children in approximately one in six households are at risk of going hungry.

Kids raised in poverty are at a clear nutritional disadvantage that extends to kindergarten preparedness and success all through school. Thankfully, a number of state and federal resources exist to help level the playing field for young children whose caregivers struggle to put food healthy on the family table.

Early Childhood Nutritional Resources Families in Need
Childhood nutrition and brain development begin during pregnancy. One of the country’s leading resources for pregnant women and young children is the Women Infants and Children (WIC) Program.

Pregnant women and new parents in Missouri can get breastfeeding support, free supplemental food, nutritional counseling, and health services through the Missouri WIC program. The Missouri Head Start program also helps by providing health and nutrition screenings for young children.

Learn More: You can read more about early childhood health screenings in this post.

Federal Home Visiting Programs, like those run by Parents as Teachers, provide high needs families and at-risk families with direct, at-home support and access to parent education. Outside the home, the Special Milk Program provides milk to kids at school and in childcare centers and camps.

Do you know a baby, toddler or preschooler who might not be getting enough to eat at home? Please share this post with them or help put them in touch with one of the government organizations we’ve highlighted here.

Proper nourishment from pregnancy through age five can help prepare at-risk children for success in kindergarten and beyond. If you know a family who’s having trouble providing nutritious meals to their young child or a pregnant mother who needs help affording healthy foods, reach out. You might be able to help connect them to the resources they need.

Continue to learn more about early childhood education by bookmarking the Missouri Parent Blog. We’ll update you on legislation and funding issues affecting Missouri’s youngest learners, as well as those affecting Missouri K-12 public school students.



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