DHA is a key fatty acid important for your child’s brain development, supporting mental and visual development through the early infant stages to later in life. Check out DHA benefits—and how they evolve.

A smart habit to start now for your babyIn the nutrition category, you’ve probably heard about the lifelong benefits of specific nutrients like calcium, protein, certain vitamins, and fiber. Often-overlooked, a more recent entrant to this list is the fatty acid known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a type of fat that’s important to brain and eye development and supports lifelong learning skills.

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Explore the long-term benefits of DHA for babies below.

DHA Benefits Before Birth

At the basic cell level, fats and fatty acids help to build the brain, eyes, and central nervous system of the developing baby in the womb. Two specific types of long-chain fatty acids, DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid) are now known to be important to this healthy development.

During the last trimester of your pregnancy, your baby’s brain grows about 260 percent!

In the womb, babies receive DHA from their mothers across the placenta. That’s why pregnant women are advised to consume 200 milligrams of DHA every day. The best sources are fatty fish from safe waters, such as salmon, sardines, and tuna, as well as fortified eggs. DHA is also available through prenatal supplements. 

DHA Benefits During Infancy

A baby’s brain continues growing after birth, and that development includes maturing vision—important for learning. Numerous studies show that DHA is particularly rich in the retina and supports visual development, especially in the first two years of life.

What’s more, babies who consumed formula that had DHA and ARA demonstrated longer sustained attention and improved problem solving skills compared with babies fed formula without DHA and ARA.

Breast milk has DHA, but the levels vary according to the mother’s diet. Those who eat more fatty fish have higher amounts of DHA in their breast milk than moms who consume less fish in their diets. Babies who aren’t breast-fed, or who are weaned early, can get DHA through formula that has the nutrient. 

DHA Benefits for Preschool and School Years

When researchers studying the effects of DHA on babies followed their young subjects into the preschool years, they made some surprising discoveries. 

Those who had received the formula that had DHA and ARA in the first year of life showed earlier improvement in tasks measuring executive function and rule learning compared to those who had received formula without DHA and ARA. They also scored better for verbal intelligence on tests at both age 5 and age 6.