Could a hectic household actually impair a child’s brain development? A new study finds that both poor nutrition and living in a “chaotic” home environment can negatively impact a young child’s executive brain functioning.
These higher-order cognitive skills include memory and attention skills and emotional control. In a study of children between 18 months and two years old, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign found that youngsters eating sugary snacks and processed foods were more likely to have problems with their working memory and with planning and organizing tasks.
Moreover, living in a household with high amounts of noise, overcrowding, and disorganization also contributed to poorer executive functioning — regardless of the child’s diet.
Nearly 300 families participated in the project, as part of an ongoing birth cohort study that has been gathering data on each child’s dietary habits, weight, social-emotional skills, and family relationships since they were six weeks old.
The information on the children came from their caregivers and focused on how often each child consumed various fresh and processed foods. The parents and caregivers also completed a “behavioral inventory” which measured the different dimensions of executive function — such as whether their child is easily overwhelmed or has ongoing problems with playing or talking too loudly.
Additionally, the adult participants had to fill out a questionnaire about household chaos, revealing whether their child lives in a home that’s quiet and has well-established rules, or is noisy and disorganized.
In this study, the team found poor diet scores had a connection to diminished cognitive performance and worsening behavior among young children.
The study found household chaos was an independent predictor of poor executive functioning among young children. In order to prevent children from dealing with poorer memory, learning, and emotional skills, the study authors recommend that parents and caregivers focus on activities that create healthy routines for their children. At the same time, switching to healthier snacks and limiting junk food can also improve their cognitive skills.
The findings appeared in the journal Nutrients.