DHA: A Nutrient That Keeps on Giving for Learning Success

It’s fitting that the full name of the nutrient DHA—docosahexaenoic acid—is long, since this special fatty acid offers long-term benefits to a growing child.

Research has shown that a steady supply of DHA during the first year of life, from either breast milk or fortified formula, strengthens basic brain structures that shape the cognitive abilities a child will later use for meeting developmental milestones and succeeding in school. Here’s how DHA can benefit your baby, according to research.

Better Visual Acuity

A 1998 study showed that babies who consumed DHA had better vision scores at their first birthday than those who consumed no DHA. The retina of the eye is especially reliant on this fatty acid while vision is developing in the first weeks of life.  A 2005 study found that babies who got DHA from either breast milk or formula performed the equivalent of one line better on a standard eye chart at 12 months if they received DHA for 36 weeks and one and a half lines better if they received DHA for the full 52 weeks.  In a 2002 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center performed tests on 12-month-olds; the results showed better visual acuity (sharpness) and stereoacuity (the ability to see depth and distance) after a full year of receiving DHA.

Better Attention

Vision influences attention, the ability to focus and concentrate, which is considered foundational to learning. When University of Kansas researchers looked at babies who consumed varying amounts of formula that had DHA from birth through 4 months, 6 months, and 9 months of age, they found superior attention skills through 9 months as compared to same-age babies who received no DHA. These findings, reported in Pediatric Research in 2011, indicated that DHA continues to offer cognitive value throughout the first year of life.

Better Verbal Skills 

The visual and cognitive advantages due to DHA last well beyond infancy. In 2007, researchers reported in the journal Early Human Development that children who had received no DHA in formula or breast milk during the first 17 weeks of life had poorer visual acuity at age 4, and did worse on language tests showing verbal IQ, than those who fed breast milk. Infants fed formula that had DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid) scored similarly to breastfed infants on these tests.

Having strong verbal skills—starting with understanding the spoken word and developing a wide vocabulary—may predict future school success.

Better Mental Development

In a study published in 2000, researchers tested a range of mental development skills in a group of 18-month-olds. Those who had received DHA during the first four months of life and had been shown to have better visual acuity at 4 months were also found to have better scores on the Bayley Scales of Infant Development—a standardized assessment of motor, language, and cognitive development of infants and toddlers—compared to infants who didn’t receive DHA. The toddlers who had consumed DHA as infants scored seven points higher on the mental-development portion of the Bayley (average score is 100), which looks at such cognitive skills as memory, problem solving, and classifying, along with social and language skills.

Better Executive Function

As children move into the preschool and school years, educators know that the ability to pay attention and respond directly affects learning. A study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013 found babies who had been fed DHA (compared to those who had not) showed better performance on intelligence and language tests at ages 3 to 6 years. The tests used are considered to be indicators of school readiness.

According to the researchers, skills that relied on a strong attention system advanced the most. These are the kinds of skills that make up what’s known as executive function—the ability to use self-control, focus, goal setting, and memory, among other abilities, to achieve. In fact, they’re skills that can help your baby succeed in school (when the time comes).