DHA, or Docosahexaenoic acid, is an Omega-3 fat found throughout the body and the most abundant Omega-3 fat in our brains. While some health trends advocate for cutting fat, Omega-3 fats are good fats, and DHA is a key building block for infant brain development. You can support your child’s brain development by including DHA in her diet. Learn more about the relationship between DHA and brain development, and how DHA helps support brain development in infants and eyesight development.
DHA and Brain Development
Infant brain development is rapid well into her first three years of age. Her brain will double in size by her first birthday, and she’ll go from simply adjusting to life outside the womb, to showing you her favourite toys and exploring the world around her. Experts recommend a DHA-rich diet, such as a DHA-enriched formula, to provide additional support for her brain’s rapid growth, which will be 85 percent complete by her third birthday.
Our bodies can convert Omega-3 fats into DHA, but not efficiently. Therefore, a DHA-rich diet during her infancy is recommended to help her access this important nutrient. Some experts recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume at least 200 mg of DHA daily to support brain development in infants1. You can support your child’s brain development by eating fatty fish that are high in DHA such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring – or by taking DHA supplements. "If a woman is not breastfeeding her baby exclusively, she should choose an infant formula that contains DHA." - Dr. Peter Nieman, Alberta pediatrician.
A DHA-rich diet after pregnancy increases the amount of DHA available from breastfeeding. Breast milk naturally contains DHA, but the amount depends on your diet, and eating more fatty fish with DHA, or taking DHA supplements, will increase the amount available in your breast milk to support your infant’s brain development. At six months old, her mental and physical skills will surprise and delight you as she reaches for a treat, imitates your speech, and mimics simple behaviours and expressions3.
According to Dr. Bruce Holub, University Professor Emeritus and founder of the DHA/EPA Omega-3 institute, a number of clinical studies have shown that many infants given DHA have exhibited better cognitive performance, learning ability, and visual acuity as compared to infants not provided with DHA.
DHA also supports infant eyesight development. Our retinas are rich in DHA, and vision is a critical part of focus. When she is born, her focus is near-sighted, but at five months old, her improved vision and depth perception changes her world. She’ll see in three-dimensions, and know her teddy bear is still her teddy bear even when it’s upside down. By including DHA in her diet, you’re supporting her rapidly developing eyesight, and she’s exploring her world.
When your child arrives, help her get this important nutrient by including an expert recommended amount of DHA in your diet during breastfeeding, or by choosing DHA-enriched baby formula. In fact, 9 out of 10 doctors who would feed infant formula to their own children recommend a DHA-enriched formula to support cognitive development.
If you are choosing formula, not all DHA formulas in Canada contain the same amount of DHA and do not have a clinically proven level of DHA. When choosing formula, look on the list of ingredients for DHA – listed by its full name – docosahexaenoic acid. Experts recommend that infant formula contain between 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent of total fatty acids, approximately between 7.2 and 18 mg of DHA per 100 ml of formula.2 Enfamil A+ has a clinically proven level of DHA.
Because your child’s brain will never grow this fast again, the best way to support infant eyesight and brain development is to include DHA in your child’s diet. DHA and brain development go hand-in-hand, and when you give your child DHA, you support that cognitive development that allows her to express herself, and help her live a healthy life.
1. AFSSA (2010). "Opinion of the French Food Safety Agency on the update of French population reference intakes (ANCs) for fatty acids."; FAO (2010). Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition: report of an expert consultation. Rome: 1-189; Brenna, J. T. and A. Lapillonne (2009). "Background paper on fat and fatty acid requirements during pregnancy and lactation." Ann Nutr Metab 55(1-3): 97-122; Simopoulos, A. P., A. Leaf, et al. (1999). "Workshop on the Essentiality of and Recommended Dietary Intakes for Omega-6 and Omega-3 Fatty Acids." J Am Coll Nutr 18(5): 487-489.
2. Koletzko B et al. J Perinat. Med. 2008;36:5-14