Half of very preterm infants experience neurodevelopmental impairments after NICU discharge. These adverse outcomes result in part from abnormal brain development and injury that occur during the NICU hospitalization. Although many factors influence infant brain development, nutritional determinants are of particular interest because they are highly modifiable within clinical care. Physical growth of preterm infants in the NICU continues to lag behind the reference fetus, suggesting reduced nutrient accretion during a critical period for brain development. Nutrient accretion is driven by intake of specific nutrients such as macro- and micronutrients as well as non-nutritional factors such as systemic inflammation. Most often, anthropometric indicators, such as weight, length, and head circumference, are used as proxies for nutrient accretion. A limitation of weight is that it does not differentiate the healthy growth of specific organs and tissues from excess fat accumulation. Body length provides information about skeletal growth, and linear growth stunting predicts neurodevelopmental impairment. Head circumference is only a crude proxy for brain size. More recently, application of new technologies such as air displacement plethysmography and magnetic resonance imaging has allowed the direct estimation of lean tissue accretion and brain growth in the NICU. These newer techniques can facilitate research to improve our understanding of the links among the NICU diet, inflammation, physical growth, and brain development. These new measures may also be relevant within clinical care to identify infants who may benefit from specific interventions to enhance nutrient accretion and brain development.

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