You may know about the importance of getting enough omega-3 fats, including DHA, in your diet. But did you know that DHA is especially critical for brain growth in infants? This omega-3 fatty acid is a significant contributor to the brain development that takes place during the first two years of life—and beyond.
As parents, we marvel at how rapidly our children grow and develop during their first months of life. It’s incredible to watch as our infants increasingly respond to sights and sounds, begin to smile and laugh, become ever more curious about the world around them and ever more agile and determined to explore it.
Behind those milestones and captivating moments of our children’s developmental progress, a vast neurological project is underway. Our children’s brains grow more quickly during their first year than at any other time in their lives. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, helps to fuel that growth. In this article, we’ll give you an overview of why DHA is critical for brain growth in infants and provide ways for mother’s and their infants to consume more DHA.
The basics of DHA
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is one of three main omega-3 fatty acids. (The other two big ones? ALA and EPA.) DHA and other omega-3s play essential roles in the body throughout our lifespan. They’re a rich source of energy, and they also help maintain the healthy functioning of our heart, lungs, and immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids help control inflammation, stabilize mood, and may reduce anxiety and depression.
The beneficial work of omega-3s takes place at a cellular level. DHA and other omega-3s are absorbed by our cells, where they help cells maintain their optimal structure and also to communicate effectively with one another.
Among omega-3 fatty acids, DHA is particularly critical for healthy brain development and function. In addition to giving structure to our brain cells and facilitating their communication, DHA has other vital roles to play:
- Helps our brains create and maintain what’s known as plasticity, the ability of the brain to modify its structure and the ways it functions. Our brains’ plasticity supports our ability to learn, to change our behaviors, to process emotions and emotional experiences, and to recover from brain injury or damage.
- Continues to fuel the growth of new brain cells as we age and develop beyond our first two years of life.
- Critical to cellular development in our eyes and helps us maintain healthy vision.
DHA is an essential nutrient throughout our lives. But this fatty acid has a unique significance for infants. That’s because, during the earliest months and years of life, DHA helps to fuel an incredible pace of growth and development of the brain.
How an infant’s brain grows
DHA’s role in infant health and development actually begins before birth. Significant amounts of DHA collect in the brain during the second half of pregnancy (especially during the third trimester), when the fetal brain undergoes a breathtaking pace of growth.
The infant’s brain continues a rapid pace of growth and development during the first 12 months of life. During that first year, the infant’s brain grows to nearly three-quarters the size of the adult brain. (At birth, the infant’s brain is roughly one-quarter to one-third the size of an adult brain.)
What’s happening during this time of intense growth and development? The infant’s brain is building itself out structurally and foundationally, laying the groundwork for a lifetime of neural activity that includes all our thinking and reasoning, our social, emotional, and behavioral regulation, our learning and decision making. Research shows the amount of brain growth that takes place during their first year is one significant factor influencing a child’s intelligence later in life.
How does DHA benefit infant brain development?
The DHA that accumulates in the brain during infancy is an essential building block for children’s cognitive, social, emotional and behavioral development.
Higher levels of DHA in infants are linked to stronger development of language, cognition, social and motor skills as they move out of infancy and into young childhood. Over the longer term, research shows higher DHA levels during infancy are linked to better vocabulary, stronger learning, and information processing skills, and stronger behavioral skills in preschoolers.
Infants with higher DHA show better visual development and acuity during infancy and later childhood, according to research. Poor vision in children is associated with lower levels of DHA during infancy.
In older children, lower levels of DHA are linked to academic challenges, behavior issues, and mental health conditions including hyperactivity, aggressiveness, anxiety, and depression.
Getting infants the DHA they need
Breast milk carries high levels of DHA, a way to transfer this essential fatty acid to newborns. Because of the scientifically recognized importance of DHA to brain development during the first months of life, most infant formulas are now fortified with DHA.
Levels of DHA in breast milk vary and depend significantly on the mother’s diet. Genetics also may play a role. The typical Western diet, unfortunately, usually falls short in delivering a plentiful enough supply of omega-3 fatty acids, while at the same time delivering an over-supply of omega-6 fatty acids (found in many processed foods). Many of us, including new, breastfeeding moms, have a dietary imbalance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in our diets, and may not be getting enough of the DHA and other omega-3s we need.
Here’s what I recommend for Omega 3 intake
In my clinical practice, I encourage women who are pregnant and breastfeeding to include generous amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets and to pay particular attention to dietary sources of DHA. Those include fatty, cold-water fish such as tuna, trout, and salmon, as well as eggs. Other important sources of omega-3s include walnuts, flaxseed, and other nuts and seeds, and their oils.
I often recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women use a fish oil supplement. For more ideas on Omega 3 rich foods and how to get kids to take Omega 3 supplements, I’ve previously written 7 Foods Rich In Omega 3 Fatty Acids and Top 10 tips to get kids to take Omega 3 (Fish Oil).
For infants not receiving breast milk, it’s essential to use a DHA-fortified formula. (Nearly all formula on the market are DHA fortified, but it’s important to make sure.) Supplementing with a liquid DHA formula can also be helpful for children during their first year of life. Make sure to use options that don’t contain high amounts of sugar and are free of other chemical additives and contaminants that can be present in omega-3 supplements made from poor-quality fish sources.