The science of building intelligence in toddlers

The nutrition that children receive in their first two years is the most important of their life span and will determine their true genetic potential.

Expert researchers have conducted clinical trials on humans and animals to isolate the specific nutrients that support multi-dimensional learning.

Multi-dimensional learning in toddlers occurs through a combination of observation (vision), study (imagination and memory), play (physical growth and skill development), and a strong immune system (protection from infectious diseases).

There is an exact science behind the nutrients that are the catalysts for these components of multi-dimensional learning.


Your toddler's visual skills help them take in information and learn about the world around them. Without good eyesight, learning will be severely impaired. Hoffman's study of breastfed infants revealed that a dietary supply of AA and DHA in the first year of life optimised visual development in infants. In another study by Birch, it was found that early dietary intake of AA and DHA is necessary for the optimal development of the brain and eye of an infant.

There are several studies that strongly suggest that macular pigment protects the eye from light damage by absorbing blue light. Landrum's one-year study of the macular pigment revealed that supplementing the diet with lutein increased macular pigmentation and prevented damaging blue light from reaching the retinal tissues by 30-40%.

Hammond's study also demonstrated that lutein supplementation significantly improved visual function. His study concluded that macular pigments improve visual performance by promoting a healthy retina and lens.


The rapid growth spurt of the human brain begins in the last trimester of pregnancy, culminating at 18-24 months of life. This is the critical period when the brain has a "once-only opportunity to grow properly".

A diet with the essential nutrients to support brain development has an impact on intelligence. A prospective study following infants who had severe malnutrition at first year of age and are now young adults is ongoing in Jamaica. The study compared normal children of the same age who did not suffer from malnutrition at infancy. According to the results of the study, at 15 years of age, the malnourished children have lower intelligence quotient (IQ), do not perform as well in school and have a higher rate of learning disabilities.

Choline and taurine are two of the nutrients that enhance learning. Studies indicate that perinatal supplementation with choline enhances memory and learning functions that endure throughout the life span. Conversely, any deficit in choline will also cause memory and learning impairment to persist lifelong.

Taurine is the most abundant amino acid in the neural tissues. It is also present in high concentrations in the developing brain and retina. The severe effects of taurine deficiency have been well established in human and animal studies, among which are growth retardation and abnormality in eye and ear functions.


Children need a lot of energy in order to engage in active play. In order to stimulate learning through active play, toddlers need to be growing healthily in accordance with their age group. Studies indicate that vitamins A and D, zinc and calcium play a major role in inducing growth of cells, nerves, muscles, teeth and bones.

Studies have shown that children lacking in vitamin A fail to grow but when given vitamin A supplements, they gain weight and grow taller. The growth of bones is a complex process involving the conversion of small bones into larger bones. This bone-remodelling process involves the undoing of some bones. Vitamin A helps in this dismantling by helping the enzymes to break down and remove the bones that are not needed.

The role of vitamin D in bone growth is to maintain blood concentrations of calcium and phosphorus. Bones grow denser and stronger as they absorb these minerals. Zinc supports many functions in the body. In relation to growth, it affects thyroid function, influencing behaviour and learning performance. Calcium is the most common mineral in the body, 99% of which is found in bones and teeth and 1% in blood and soft tissues. It aids in bone growth, tooth development and muscle contraction.


Toddlers need a good immune protection system to stay healthy and fight off serious infections as well as common childhood ailments. Healthy children are better and faster learners, enjoying uninterrupted school days. Scientific studies have discovered that alpha-lactalbumin, oligofructose and nucleotides aid in boosting the immune system.

Alpha-lactalbumin is the predominant protein found in breast milk (20-25% of total protein), whereas cow's milk contains much less (2-5% of total protein). It provides infants with essential amino acids and aids in the absorption of beneficial minerals such as zinc and iron. In addition, it has been found that digestion of alpha-lactalbumin produces peptides that have antibacterial and immunostimulatory properties, thereby providing increased immunity against infections.

A clinical study on the infants fed with formula milk enriched with alpha-lactalbumin found that the gastro-intestinal tolerance of these infants was similar to infants fed on breast milk, proving that alpha-lactalbumin supplementation is well tolerated.

Oligofructose provides functional and nutritional benefits to foods. It has similar properties to sugar and is often used as a replacement for sugar. It has been termed as a prebiotic as it is non-digestible and stimulates the growth and activity of health-stimulating bacteria in the intestine. It also serves as a dietary fibre, thereby assisting in digestion and reducing the risk of constipation.

The best known nutritional property of oligofructose is its stimulation of bifidobacteria growth in the intestine.

Among the health benefits of bifidobacteria are inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, stimulating of components of the immune system and aiding the absorption of certain ions and the synthesis of B vitamins.

Nucleotides are non-protein nitrogens found in human milk. Animal studies indicate that dietary nucleotides have beneficial immune functions. In a study on the effects of dietary nucleotides on immune function in infants, it was found that the activity of natural killer cells was significantly higher in breastfed infants and infants fed on formula milk fortified with nucleotides. The study concluded that nucleotides provide enhanced immunity.

The evidence presented by these trials is strong indication that supplementation with the right nutrients is undoubtedly beneficial to multi-dimensional learning. 

Article contributed by Dr Azam Mohd Nor, consultant paediatric cardiologist