The Impact of DHA on Children’s Brain and Eyes

26 November 2019

Did you know that there is incredible research to show that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to a deficit in brain and eye development? There is one omega-3 fatty acid that is especially significant called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It is an essential nutrient which means that the body cannot make it – it must come from food or supplement. And it has been found to make up 90% of the omega-3 fatty acids found in the brain [1]. Wow!

The Impact of DHA Intake on Brain and Eye Development

The significance of DHA in the diet starts from the moment of conception. Daily intake of foods and/or supplements that contain DHA by a woman during pregnancy help to form the brain and retina of a developing baby [1,2,3,4]. The amount a mom eats directly affects the amount her baby has access to (5). For moms that breastfeed, this transfer continues through breastmilk [1,2,3].

The benefit of DHA continues beyond the first few years of life. Demmelmair H., Oyen J., Pickert T., et al found that preschoolers showed improved cognitive skills when they consumed salmon (a rich source of DHA). We also know that once the foundation has been laid in the early years, continued intake of DHA helps to support cognitive function into grade-school years and beyond [1,5].

How Much DHA Do Children Need?

This is actually a more complicated question than it appears, and we do not have exact answers, so research continues [1,2,7]. That is the beautiful thing about the science of nutrition…it is on-going. But we do have the best estimates as part of the research that has been done with a goal range of 250-500 mg per day of combined DHA and EPA [1]. The Dietary Reference Intakes also have guidelines for the total amount of omega-3 fatty acids per day which can be found here. We also know that animal-based sources of omega-3 offer a more efficient access to DHA than plant-based ones. And we know that most people in North America are falling short of adequate intake of DHA [1].

  1. [1] Michael J. Weiser Christopher M. Butt 1 and M. Hasan Mohajeri. Review: Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan. Nutrients. 2016 Feb 17;8(2):99. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
  2. [2] Innis SM. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Neural Development to 2 Years of Age: Do We Know Enough for Dietary Recommendations? Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition: 2009. 48 (S16-S24). Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  3. [3] Innis, SM. Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain. Brain Research. 2008 1237 (35-43). Retrieved August 8, 2019
  4. [4] Koletzki B, Lien E, Agostini C, et al. The roles of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in pregnancy, lactation and infancy: review of current knowledge and consensus recommendations. J Perinat Med. 2008 36(1):5-14. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
  5. [5] Gil-Sanchez A., Larque E., Demmelmair H., et al. Maternal-fetal in vivo transfer of [13C] docosahexaenoic and other fatty acids across the human placenta 12 h after maternal oral intake. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Jul;92(1):115-22. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  6. [6] Demmelmair H., Oyen J., Pickert T., et al. The effect of Atlantic salmon consumption on the cognitive performance of preschool children – A randomized controlled trial. Clinical Nutrition. 2018. Retrieved August 8, 2019.
  7. [7] Eilander A., Hundscheid DC., Osendarp SJ., et al. Effects of n-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on visual and cognitive development throughout childhood: a review of human studies. Prost Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2007 Apr;76(4):189-203.
Tags: brain, breastfeeding, breastmilk, DHA, eye, kid, omega-3, omega-3 fatty acids, pregnancy, pregnant, recommendations, toddler


Noelle Martin

Noelle Martin is a Registered Dietitian with a Master of Science in Foods and Nutrition. She has a passion for educating and inspiring others in areas related to nutrition and overall health. Noelle is specialized in areas of maternal and pediatric nutrition, sports nutrition, and food allergies.

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