Diet - intellectual development

Alternative names 
Normal growth and development


A child’s growth and development may be divided into four periods: infancy, the preschool years, the middle childhood years, and adolescence. Immediately after birth, an infant normally loses approximately 5% to 10% of his or her birth weight. However, by about 2 weeks of age, an infant should start to have rapid weight gain and growth.

By 4 to 6 months of age, an infant’s weight should be double the birth weight. During the second half of the first year of life, growth is not as rapid. Between the ages of 1 and 2, a toddler will gain only about 5 pounds. Weight gain will remain at about 5 pounds per year between the ages of 2 and 5.

Between the ages of 2 and 10 years, a child will continue to grow at a steady pace. A final growth spurt begins with the onset of puberty, sometime between the ages of 9 and 15.

Nutrient needs correspond with these changes in rates of growth, meaning an infant needs more calories in relation to size than a preschooler or school-age child needs. Nutrient needs increase again as a child approaches adolescence.

Generally, a healthy child will follow an individual growth curve despite variations in nutrient intake. Parents and care givers should provide a diet appropriate for each child’s age, and should offer a wide variety of foods to ensure adequate nutrition.

Malnutrition has been associated with serious problems with intellectual development. A child who is undernourished may experience early fatigue and may be unable to fully participate in learning at school. Additionally, malnutrition can increase the susceptibility to illness, possibly causing a child to miss school.

Children who are chronically undernourished have unacceptable growth patterns accompanied by scholastic underachievement. A good variety of food choices and adequate intake are essential to achieve the best possible intellectual development. Breakfast is particularly important as children may feel fatigued, sleepy, and unmotivated when breakfast is skimpy or is skipped altogether.

Nutrition is considered critical enough to intellectual development that U. S. government programs have been put in place to insure at least one healthy, balanced meal a day for children. This is usually breakfast, because the relationship between breakfast and improved learning has been clearly demonstrated. Programs are available in impoverished and underserved areas of the United States.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 7, 2012
by Sharon M. Smith, M.D.

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