A growing body of research indicates that early nutrition has the power to improve cognitive skills that may make a difference in the classroom.

How Does DHA Affect Attention and Learning?

It might seem far-fetched that a nutrient in breast milk and formula that your child consumes in babyhood could make a difference in learning years later. But a growing body of research indicates that early nutrition has the power to improve cognitive skills that may make a difference in the classroom.

The link between infant feeding and future school skills is found in the brain. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a prevalent fatty acid in the brain, which itself is the body’s most fat-rich organ. Brain, eye, and nervous system development all depend on DHA. And what happens in these structures sets the stage for how a child can manage the complicated skills involved in everything from learning to talk to learning self-control.

DHA and Attention

Attention—being able to look and focus—is necessary for learning, and the ability develops early. In fact, scientists increasingly believe that attention in infants reveals a lot about cognitive health at early ages and later stages.

Wondering how it’s possible to assess infants’ ability to pay attention? One way scientists can measure attention is by tracking heart rate. A baby’s heart rate slows when the baby is attending to some sort of task. Researchers can also observe babies’ visual and behavioral responses to being shown different images, such as faces or patterns. To measure something called sustained attention, or focus, researchers can even record electrical responses in the brain while the baby watches patterns on a screen. This method allows researchers to actually see the active information processing.

In 2011, University of Kansas researchers published a study in Pediatric Research that followed babies who received varying amounts of DHA and tested them for attention at three ages: 4 months, 6 months, and 9 months. The babies who had received formula with DHA showed better attention scores through 9 months than those who had not received DHA.

Vision is also a critical part of attention. Numerous studies have established a link between DHA and the development of a strong visual system. It makes perfect sense when you consider that the retina of the eye is a DHA-rich body part.

DHA and Learning

But improvement in early attention skills isn’t the only benefit DHA provides for learning. When the same children from the 2011 Kansas study were tracked through age 6, the children who had consumed DHA as babies continued to do better in measures of attention than those who did not have DHA. Researchers could also add to the list of DHA benefits an advantage in verbal ability, among other key cognitive measures that are important predictors of school success.

Researchers believe DHA supports something called the brain's executive function, which is at the heart of all learning. Some people describe executive function as "the little CEO in your brain" that allows you to get things done through a complex set of learning skills, including controlling impulses and distractions, remembering, and setting goals and making the decisions needed to reach them.

The Bottom Line for You and Your Baby

Don't underestimate what’s going on inside your baby’s head—important development starts early and carries all through the learning years. Your baby is looking to you to feed her brain and growth with important nutrients (like DHA), learning stimulation, and a lot of healthy encouragement.