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We’ve all heard about the importance of women ‘eating right’ while pregnant and even prior to conception, to give their child the healthiest possible start to life. It’s what all expectant parents strive for. However, the varied and far-reaching impacts of good or poor nutrition on mother and baby are not always understood, nor is there a blueprint to easily guide women on what to do for optimum maternal health. Not to mention that nutritional planning can sometimes get overlooked during the frenzy of pregnancy, where other considerations compete for attention.

The first 1000 days of a baby’s life – conception through to the age of two, has been identified by neuroscientists, paediatricians and other early childhood experts as a period of profound development – and vulnerability – where a baby’s nutrition, relationships, and environments come to shape the trajectory of their future lives. Therefore, it’s crucial for mothers and fathers to seize this window of opportunity to enhance mother and baby’s nutrition – but what do they need to be mindful of, specifically?

Who better for Kiddipedia to consult for advice, than Kristy Manners, dietitian & breastfeeding counsellor of Growth Spectrum! A nationally accredited and university-trained health professional, Kristy’s mission is to help women nourish their body from preconception to pregnancy and into the postnatal period and beyond, to give their child the building blocks for health and success. She’ll help us canvass the key nutritional considerations you should factor into your pregnancy plan.

The role of nutrients in preconception and DNA

If given the opportunity to do something that would prevent their future child from developing a chronic disease or illness, most, if not all parents, would jump at the chance. It’s a shame then, that the power of nutrition to lower children’s risk of inheriting poor health, is not always fully communicated or understood by soon-to-be mums and dads. Research has established that a mother’s diet around the time of conception can permanently influence her baby’s DNA (source).

Cue ‘nutrigenetics’, which in the context of pregnancy, charts the impact of nutrition on genetic markers of the foetus and development in later life. It has helped us understand the cause of steady increases in the rates of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease – largely influenced by the eating habits and health of the preceding generation(s). As we can see, nutrition’s impact goes far beyond the capacity to conceive in the first place. The earlier it is prioritised, the better the outcome for mum and baby as they start their 1000-day journey.

While women are encouraged to reach for prenatal vitamins when they begin to try for a baby, to support the nutritional demands of conception and the upcoming pregnancy, that alone will not achieve the optimum conditions for conception. For example, moderate or severe obesity in the mother has been linked to lower chances of pregnancy and increases the risk of pregnancy loss. And men are not off the hook either – high intakes of saturated and trans-fat, as well as undernutrition, affects sperm quality and the time it takes to conceive.

“Three months before you try to conceive is a great time to re-evaluate your diet and optimise it for success. While there are many factors impacting fertility including age, lifestyle, stress, weight, toxins, disease and more, nutrition is one of the most powerful ways to assist conception.”

Kristy Manners, Growth Spectrum

It’s also important to recognise there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to nutrition, and that a prenatal supplement will not cater to the unique bodily requirements of every woman. The greatest benefit will come from a tailored nutrition plan that is optimised for a woman’s specific health needs and is also realistic within her life circumstances.

Of the belief that it’s never too early to invest in your child’s future, and aware that devising a dietary plan to support maternal health can be a daunting experience, Kristy Manners takes great joy in tailoring a ‘fertility-friendly diet’ for prospective mums and dads that is personalized and nutritionally unique to that couple alone. Check out her general advice for eating right, to support the next generation.  

Nutrition’s impact on prenatal brain development 

Did you know that 1,000,000+ new brain connections are formed every second in the first year of a child’s life? (source). Nutrients are vital to supporting the healthy linking of brain neurons, which are the building blocks of cognitive and motor activity. In fact, the impact of nutrition on the developing fetus inside the womb is so significant, medical professionals have suggested that “nutrition is perhaps the most influential non-genetic factor in fetal development” (source).

In the prenatal phase, a baby is solely reliant on internal nutrients from the mother’s body. The nutrients that are most important for their brain development, include: folate, iron, zinc and iodine, as well as protein and fatty acids. In the event that a baby is not exposed to a sufficient supply, it could result in developmental delays, or worse still, birth defects (source).

Low intakes of dietary or food-based iron (among other nutrients) tend to be common in women at the best of times, which is why evaluating one’s diet is so valuable in the lead up to conception, and critical once you confirm the pregnancy, as it can take many months to build up your body’s stores in readiness for the demands of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding. As a result, it is often difficult for women to meet the nutritional demands from diet alone, without using a nutritional supplement – particularly those high in folate, iron and iodine, which as mentioned is important for brain development. While more is not always better when it comes to nutrition, a dietitian that specialises in prenatal care can help you strike the right balance, and ensure that you develop a nutritional glow alongside your pregnancy glow!

Nutrition’s impact on postnatal brain development

For newborns and infants, breast milk – nature’s superfood for babies – is the optimum source of nutrients. It is widely accepted that both colostrum and mature breast milk contain antibodies, healthy bacteria and other components that help to mitigate a baby’s risk of infections and certain chronic conditions such as diabetes (source). Furthermore, a study from Brown University discovered 3 months of breastfeeding boosts brain growth by 20 to 30 percent, concentrated in the areas of language, emotional function, and cognition (source).

Aside from its composition, an added benefit of breast milk via the act of breastfeeding, is that it promotes mother-to-child bonding through nurturing touch, which in turn, builds ‘sensory and emotional circuitry’ in newborns. Granted, there are challenges to breastfeeding. Thankfully, society has made progress in busting the myth that breast-feeding comes naturally to all women, encouraging them to seek help from lactation consultants. Kristy from Growth Spectrum knows first-hand how isolating breastfeeding can be, and offers mothers a range of breastfeeding support services.

In their nutrition journey, babies can face a few obstacles that also cause distress for new mothers, such as colic, reflux, intolerances/allergies and faltering of growth. Kristy explains that “with the right guidance and educated nutrition choices, many of these harrowing symptoms can be alleviated”. And as your baby gets a little older, she advocates for continuing to breastfeed when your baby begins solids, to ease the transition and reduce any allergy symptoms that might emerge as they adjust to this new diet.

Finally, as we near the end of the first 1000 days, the toddler phase of development will expose parents to possible problem-eating, whether it’s simply a matter of fussiness or a more serious developmental issue. Kristy suggests new parents keep in mind that different feeding approaches may be needed to overcome problem eating, which will affect their nutrient levels. At the end of the day, what you feed them now will help determine good life-long eating practices and a healthy relationship with food.

The impact of a mother’s health during the postpartum stage

Following childbirth and upon arrival home, the lion’s share of attention and nutritional efforts go to supporting your baby. While their health is naturally paramount, it shouldn’t mean a mother’s own postpartum wellbeing falls to the wayside. After all, the health of both is inextricably linked. Pregnancy triggers a loss of nutrients and energy for mothers that is further sustained through breastfeeding, which left unaddressed, will ultimately impact on the level of care you can provide your baby.

Have you heard of the ‘fourth trimester’? It describes the transitional period following birth, where a baby is adjusting to life outside the womb, and a mother is adjusting to her parental responsibilities amidst a significant mental and physical healing process. Hormonal fluctuations, inflammation and wound healing, and the aforementioned nutrient depletion, is just the tip of the iceberg that warrants a greater focus on women’s wellbeing. In fact, there are growing calls in the medical industry to better acknowledge the fourth trimester and support women with closer supervision of their health (source).

Research has also established a link between nutrient depletion during pregnancy and lactation and the risk of postpartum depression, concluding that nutritional deficiencies can affect the creation of mood-regulating neurotransmitters in the brain (source). Folate, vitamin D, iron, and healthy fats and fatty acids in particular, have all been associated with a higher risk of postpartum depression. Subsequently, nutrients are vital for the healthy functioning of both baby and mother.

For what seems like a fairly sedentary activity, you might be surprised to learn that lactation can burn up to 500 calories per day! To maintain their energy and pass on vital nutrients through breast milk, women are encouraged to develop a dietary plan to replenish lost calories and achieve the right blend of nutrients. Of course, that’s easier said than done for an exhausted and time-strapped new mum. Kristy Manners is an expert in designing a postpartum plan to assist with healing, nutrient intake, and even the shifting of excess weight, without adversely affecting their breastmilk supply.

Where to turn for advice?

Kristy knows first-hand how little support some women have access to during pregnancy, labour and the postpartum phase, regarding nutrition, physical and mental recovery from labour, and breastfeeding support. The advice and recommendations can certainly be overwhelming to manage on your own.

“There is so much unsolicited advice online it’s hard to know who to trust. I personally believe that an empathetic ear and good honest conversation from a university trained and nationally accredited practitioner is the best way forward for new families or those beginning their pregnancy journey.


Kristy Manners

If you’re looking for evidence-based knowledge, empathy and tailored care to both mother and baby combined, reach out to Kristy at Growth Spectrum, where you’ll find a range of services from Getting Ready for Labour workshops, Postnatal Roadmap membership and consultation packages. She’ll provide actionable advice and peace of mind that you’re not only surviving the first 1000 days, but actually thriving.