This key fatty acid is important for your child’s brain development, supporting skills that are helpful from the early infant stages to later in life. Check out the benefits—and how they evolve.

A smart habit to start now for your baby

For good health all through life, from the early years through the golden years, humans need certain basic things, research shows. Highest on the list: exercise, social relationships, enough sleep, and good nutrition.

In the nutrition category, you’ve probably heard about the lifelong benefits of specific nutrients like calcium, protein, certain vitamins, and fiber. An often-overlooked, more recent entrant to this list is the fatty acid known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a type of fat that’s critical to brain development that fuels lifelong learning skills.

Before Birth

The brain is primarily made up of fats. 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. During the last trimester of your pregnancy, your baby’s brain grows about 260 percent!

Two specific types of long-chain fatty acids, DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid) are now known to be critical to this healthy development.

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, crab, and tuna, as well as fortified eggs. DHA is also available through prenatal supplements. 

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 demonstrated longer sustained attention and improved problem solving skills compared with babies fed formula without DHA.

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’s supplemented with the nutrient. 

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 in the first year of life showed earlier improvement in tasks such as pattern discrimination (an important learning skill) and rule learning compared to those who had received formula without DHA. They also scored better on an intelligence test at age 5 that is widely considered to be a good predictor of school readiness.