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Why Your Baby’s Brain Needs DHA

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Did you know your baby’s brain triples in size within the first year of life? This rapid brain growth is undeniable and requires important nutrients, including the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), among others. In the brain, DHA is responsible for the growth, development, and maintenance of brain tissue. DHA provides structure to the brain and retina. During the first 24 months, when your baby’s brain is rapidly growing, there is a critical need for DHA. Getting enough DHA will help promote cognitive development and visual acuity.

DHA represents up to 97 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and up to 93 percent of the omega-3 fatty acids in the retina. The brain and eyes have significant requirements for preformed DHA, the natural DHA that doesn’t require conversion from other fat sources in the body or from food.

During the last trimester of pregnancy, DHA is accumulated in the brain and eye through the nutrients provided by the placenta. At birth, your baby will need to get DHA from breast milk or infant formula. Babies who are born prematurely (before 37 weeks gestation), or who have a low birth weight, may be susceptible to a deficiency of DHA.

If you are breastfeeding, the amount of DHA in your breast milk will depend on your dietary intake. If you are using infant formula, you’ll want to use an infant formula with DHA.

The concentration of DHA in breast milk varies depending on the mother’s diet. For example, women who live in coastal areas where they eat a diet of marine food such as fish have higher concentrations of DHA in their breast milk. Women who live in China and Japan have the highest concentrations of DHA in their breast milk in the world. Women who live in areas where there is little marine life, or who do not eat eggs frequently, and/or base their diets on vegetable protein sources (beans, for example) have the lowest breast milk concentrations of DHA.

Infants need 20 milligrams per kilogram per day. For example, a 22-pound baby (10 kg) needs 200 mg of DHA each day.

Children aged 2-4 require about 100-150 milligrams DHA each day. In this age group, the average daily consumption of DHA is less than 45 milligrams per day, or less than half the DHA requirement.

Sources:

  • Am J Clin Nutr, June 2007 vol
  • 85 no
  • 6 1457-1464. Castle and Jacobsen
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • 2013. Today’s Dietitian
  • The Role of DHA and ARA in Infant Nutrition.

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