Will DHA make my baby smarter?

25 September 2020

As parents, we would do anything to give our children the best of everything, and that includes helping them be the most intelligent human beings possible. Medical experts recommend DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, especially during the early years as this is a critical period when a child’s brain is developing very rapidly. DHA is a very important component of the brain. So does this mean that DHA will help make your baby smarter? Let’s look at the data.

Many believe that DHA can make their child smarter. It is easy to see how this idea may have come about considering that a baby’s brain accumulates DHA up until about 18 months of age [1] and that DHA is the most abundant fatty acid in the brain. To top it off, many studies have shown that a greater concentration of DHA in the brain is required for optimal neurologic functioning and vision. Infants with higher blood levels of DHA have been shown to achieve higher scores on measures of neurologic functioning and vision.[2]

The tricky part here is understanding that the neurologic function definition does not only include intelligence as we know it, in terms of an IQ. The formal definition of neurologic function is actually a very broad term that looks at nerve functions such as delivering information to the brain and then the brain carrying out the command. This neurologic information can be a movement, coordination of muscles, reflex, sensory function, or mental status which includes speech, problem-solving, and processing of information.[3] So if a study is talking about neurologic functioning, you need to look deeper to better understand exactly what the author is referring to.

Some studies have found a positive relationship between DHA given to a child during their early years and that child’s cognitive functions in later years. For example, a European study published in 2015 followed 157 children who were breastfed. What was special about this study is that the lactating mothers’ breastmilk fatty acid levels were tested, so the researchers knew how much DHA the infants were receiving. The results of this study showed that the girls from the study who were fed breastmilk containing a higher level of DHA did better on cognitive tests at age 12 compared to girls who received breastmilk with a low level of DHA. But when you look at the boys who were involved in this study, there was no difference observed.[4]

Another study that looked at pregnant mothers who took a DHA supplement versus a group that was given a placebo proves to be worthy of a mention. The results showed that the babies of the mothers who took the DHA supplement were able to maintain higher levels of sustained attention during their follow-up up to one year of age.[5] Although this does not infer intelligence, being able to concentrate is usually considered helpful in a learning environment. Another study demonstrated that DHA combined with other nutrients, such as choline, were helpful in supporting infant brain development and cognitive development. Together, higher levels of both nutrients resulted in better recognition memory.[6]

On the flip side, there are also studies that show no impact of DHA on intelligence in later years. An analysis of multiple studies that looked at the impact of fatty acids on a child’s cognitive outcomes showed that supplementation did improve a child’s motor and visual development but did not significantly affect the child’s IQ in later childhood.[7]

Even though DHA has been shown to provide neurologic and visual benefits to your infant, there is no guarantee that it will have any impact on his or her IQ measures in later years. Nonetheless, DHA plays a critical role in your child’s development and experts warn that it is crucial that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as well as infants, get sufficient amounts of DHA to support brain and eye development and function [8]. The in-utero and early childhood years represent a critical time of development that requires sufficient levels of DHA.

  1. James A Greenberg, Stacey J Bell, Wendy Van Ausdal. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Fall; 1(4): 162-169. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2621042/
  2. Hee-Yong Kim. Novel Metabolism of Docosahexaenoic Acid in Neural Cells. The Journal of Biological Chemistry. June 29 2007. 18661-18665. http://www.jbc.org/content/282/26/18661.full
  3. Advameg, Inc. Encyclopedia of Children’s Health. Neurologic Exam. 2018. http://www.healthofchildren.com/N-O/Neurologic-Exam.html
  4. Geertje W.D., Wijga, A.H., Gehring, U. et al. Fatty acid composition in breastfeeding and school performance in children aged 12. Eur J Nutr. 2016; 55(7): 2199-2207.
  5. Colombo, J., Gustafson, K.M., Gajewski, B.J. et al. Prenatal DHA Supplementation and Infant Attention. Pediatr Res. 2016 Nov; 80(5) :656-662. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5164926/
  6. Cheatham C.L. and Sheppard, K.W., Synergistic Effects of Human Milk Nutrients in the Support of Infant Recognition Memory: An Observational Study. Nutrients. 2015 Nov; 7(11): 9079-9095.
  7. Shulkin M., Pimpin L, Bellinger D. et al. N-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation in Mothers, Preterm Infants, and Term Infants and Childhood Psychomotor and Visual Development: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Nutr. 2018 Mar 1; 148(3):409-418.
  8. Philip C. Calder. Docosahexaenoic Acid. Ann Nutr Metab. 2016;69(supll 1):8-21. https://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/448262
Tags: baby, brain, DHA, infant, oily fish, omega-3, omega-3 fatty acids, recommendations, seafood


Natalie Bourré

Natalie works as a consultant for various medical organizations and pharmaceutical companies. Her goal is to help them communicate accurate medical information in patient-friendly language via traditional and digital marketing methods.

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