Nutrition and Your Child’s Behavior

This article contains some of the latest research information about nutrition and the effects on child behavior.

Fact #1: It starts with pregnancy. One study showed that 3-year old children of moms that were anemic during pregnancy were less active in exploring their environment. Take your prenatal vitamin with iron for your health and the future health and development of your child.

Fact #2: A study has linked food dye and a food preservative to hyperactivity in children. This is the kind of food dye that is in some heavily colored food items like cold cereals, gelatins, flavored drink mixes, and candy. The food preservative is commonly found in cola type drinks. Cola type drinks usually contain caffeine too. Too much caffeine (which is a small amount for children) can cause your child to not sleep as well, be jittery or nervous, not focus as well, or have an upset stomach. The message here is to limit these foods for your children.

Fact #3: Several studies have shown that children that eat breakfast do better in school, are more focused, and have better behavior. The take away message here is to encourage a healthy habit of eating breakfast.

What about sugar and hyperactivity in children?
The research is very mixed on the link between sugar and hyperactivity in children. Parents report that their children get a sugar "buzz" and act over excited after eating or drinking sugary foods. This has been hard to actually “prove” with hard-core research.

Here is some simple advice to follow about the “sugar thing”. Remember, as a parent you are in control of what kinds of food and drinks you bring into the house! Try not to make sugary foods forbidden. When something is not allowed, it sometimes can have MORE appeal. Teach your children to regulate their love of sweets. How? We can “train” our taste buds to like foods that aren’t as sweet. This is harder when you already have a taste for sweets (adults) and easier when sweets are newer (babies and children).

Try these ideas:
  • Offer your baby (at about 6 months) and toddler vegetables as well as fruits. He may make a funny face when offered a new vegetable. Offer any new vegetable or food at least 10 times before you decide he doesn’t like it.

  • Don’t start sugary drinks. Stick with milk (16 ounces per day), juice (4 ounces per day), and water. Remember this is monkey see, monkey do, so try to keep your sugary drinks to a minimum too.

  • Always have your child have a meal before a sugary snack or treat. Planning ahead like this will help your child eat a smaller portion of the snack or dessert and it won’t be the only thing in their belly.

  • Develop a set of “house rules” for candy, cookies, desserts, etc. If you have older children they may even be able to help you come up with what is “fair”. When my girls were younger, they developed rules about how much Halloween candy they could eat in one day and when they could eat it. It really worked pretty well.

  • Having a “snack” does not equal having something sugary. When your child wants a snack, try to think of something with some nutritional value like cheese cubes, cheese slice and cracker, yogurt, fruit, or even a bit of a sandwich.

Early Head Start
November 2007

From your nutritionist,