Why is DHA important for babies and young children?

29 July 2020

What is DHA?

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acid that is part of the omega-3 fatty acid family, frequently dubbed “the healthy fats.” In addition to playing a key role in keeping us healthy, DHA is crucial for optimal growth and maintenance of the brain and eyes throughout our entire lifecycle. It is the star of the show when it comes to forming the structure and function of all our neural tissues, including our vision, from the time we are in the womb. As we age, DHA continues to help support and strengthen our mental cognition and visual acuity.

DHA and kids: Why your child needs DHA

DHA plays its most important role during infancy and the early years of childhood. DHA is a key structural component in the brain, eyes, and nervous system. Because of the rapid growth that occurs during this period, adequate DHA intake is crucial for optimal development. In fact, babies’ brains grow 260 per cent during the last trimester, another 175 per cent during their first year of life, 18 per cent during the second year, and about another 21 per cent from year 2 through adulthood.[1] This is coupled with the high levels of DHA that are present in the brain and eyes is why many experts believe why it is important for babies and young children to receive DHA during this critical time of development.

How to get DHA

Babies being breastfed can get DHA from breast milk, but in varying amounts depending on the mother’s diet and how much omega-3s and DHA she is receiving. A 2005 FDA survey found women typically ate only 2 ounces of fish a week, 6 ounces less than the minimum recommendations. Babies being formula-fed will get DHA only if the formula is fortified with it, which not all are. Be sure to read the formula labels.

Once weaned off breastmilk, it becomes even more difficult for young children to receive an adequate intake of DHA. When foods are being introduced to their diets for the first time, seafood is often left until later as a result of difficulty of introduction. A DHA supplement is a great option for those who are concerned that their child is not receiving an adequate intake of DHA from breastmilk and diet alone. Giving your child a DHA supplement can be beneficial to ensure they are getting exactly the amount they need. Before using any supplement you should discuss it with your physician.

  1. [1] Today’s Dietitian. The Role of DHA and ARA in Infant Nutrition and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes. Accessed on 6/21/2017. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/092208p66.shtml
Tags: baby, brain, child, DHA, infant, kid, oily fish, omega-3, omega-3 fatty acids, recommendations, seafood, toddler


Brigitte Zeitlin

Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and owner of BZ Nutrition, a private nutrition counseling practice. She has been featured in Us Weekly, Women’s Health, SELF, and Well+Good. Become a client and work with Brigitte by visiting bznutritionny.com.

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