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When my babies were young, we didn’t know as much was we do today about critical nutrients such as DHA and the DHA benefits for brain development.
Now, we know DHA is an important nutrient not only for mom and baby, but for children too, especially those with ADHD.
As a pediatric nutritionist, I screen all my families for whether or not they need a DHA supplement to their diet.
In this article, I’ll explore DHA, how DHA benefits brain development, and how you can ensure your children are getting the DHA they need.
How DHA Recommendations Have Changed
Looking back on my own experience, I breast fed my babies, but I didn’t supplement my diet with prenatal DHA or other added nutrients (not even vitamin D), nor did I focus on specific nutrient-rich foods.
At that time (more than 20 years ago!), the messages about prenatal nutrition were ones of avoidance, rather than inclusion.
Limit fish. No soft cheeses. Take a multivitamin if you don’t have a healthy diet.
I was sad to curtail my tuna fish sandwich and Brie consumption, but I did it. And as a dietitian, I certainly thought I ate well enough to forego supplements.
Jump forward into the 21st century and the nutrition messages are very different.
Messages of inclusivity prevail, and the focus on nutrients for brain, body health, and growth is stronger.
The messages related to nutrients, particularly DHA, iron, calcium and vitamin D are loud and clear: pay attention, include excellent food sources, supplement if necessary, and ensure your baby is well nourished.
From my perspective, we can still use more education, awareness and action on critical nutrients for baby in the early years.
One nutrient I want to see get more attention is docosahexaenoic acid, otherwise known as DHA.
What is DHA?
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid found in the brain.
It influences brain functioning in many ways, such as sending messages throughout the brain (called neurotransmission) and growing new connections and pathways for those messages (called neurogenesis).
DHA is also a critical nutrient in the development of baby’s vision, especially since it acts as a structural component to the retina.
But, let’s focus on the brain.
The brain is lipid rich—in other words, it’s full of fat.
Research suggests more than half of the brain is made up of fat, especially concentrated in long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Of those PUFAs in the brain, DHA is the most significant fatty acid. Babies are born with stores of DHA in the brain, which accumulate in pregnancy.
During early infancy, the process of rapid accumulation in the brain persists.
What are the DHA Benefits for the Brain?
The brain is divided into lobes and each lobe has specific functions. The frontal and prefrontal lobes are most influenced by DHA.
The frontal lobes of the brain are responsible for focus and attention, planning and problem solving, also known as executive functions.
The prefrontal lobe is tied to social, emotional and behavioral development.
Researchers believe that optimal levels of DHA, particularly in the frontal and prefrontal areas of the brain, are very important during the early years when the brain is rapidly growing and developing.
It sets the stage for future intelligence and socio-emotional development.
DHA Benefits on Intelligence
DHA is tied to the working and future intelligence of your child, or his cognition. The word cognition encompasses a wide variety of brain abilities.
For example, your child’s ability to pay attention, remember what he’s learned, and his language development are a result of his cognition.
Cognition also includes problem solving, comprehension, reasoning, computation, perception, reading and speech.
As you can see, the development of cognition in the early years may directly impact your child’s current and future mental abilities, thinking and performance, and future success in school.
Babies get DHA from their mothers during pregnancy. In other words, your baby gets (or got) prenatal DHA, depending on whether you eat or ate rich sources of DHA foods. Or, if you take (took) a DHA supplement.
During the second half of pregnancy, DHA is rapidly accumulated in baby’s brain.
By age four, a child will have up to 4 grams of DHA stored in the brain.
Studies have shown prenatal DHA has positive outcomes for baby, including better social behavior, higher social development scores, more verbal intelligence, lower pre-term birth rates, and more.
Infancy and DHA
As mentioned, during infancy, your baby’s brain is growing rapidly, and he needs to get DHA from external sources.
Breast milk and infant formula supplemented with DHA, are ideal.
However, breast milk is a likely good source of DHA if mom’s diet is rich in DHA foods.
In fact, studies show when moms took a DHA supplement after their baby was born, the concentrations of DHA in breast milk increased.
Other studies have found higher levels of DHA in the tissues of breastfed babies compared to those infants fed formula.
High concentrations of DHA in breast milk have also been tied to positive outcomes for baby: better adjustment to changes in the environment, better attention scores, and better memory skills, according to a 2016 review published in Nutrients.
Kids Aren’t Getting Enough DHA
The diets of children in the United States are lacking in DHA. According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), most infants and young toddlers aged 1-3 years are not meeting the recommended intake levels of DHA.
Certain conditions, like ADHD, have been shown to benefit from adequate DHA intake, particularly when it comes to literacy.
Hence, paying attention to adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA is part of a healthy ADHD diet for kids.
Many experts advise consuming pre-formed DHA in order to reach and maintain ideal brain concentrations and related brain functions.
While DHA can be created from ALA within the body, this process isn’t ideal. The enzymes required to make DHA from ALA are in high demand from other fatty acids, such as linoleic acid (LA).
Also, due to the nature of the American diet, which is high in omega-6 PUFAs, enzymes are often shunted to processing those fatty acids rather than converting DHA.
In the end, the conversion of ALA to DHA within the body is inefficient and inadequate, thus making DHA a conditionally essential nutrient.
Direct dietary intake of DHA, or eating DHA foods, is the preferred and optimal method of ensuring enough DHA for your child.
How much DHA does your child need?
Recommendations are still emerging, but the latest recommendations for the general population are to consume 250 to 500 mg EPA + DHA per day, according to a 2016 review in Nutrients. (EPA and DHA are packaged together in supplements, and found together in food.)
In my book, Fearless Feeding, my co-author and I break down the recommendations for pregnancy and childhood, using the global recommendations from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which are more detailed for children:
Recommendations for DHA
|Pregnant & Breastfeeding Moms||200 mg DHA per day |
8-12 oz. seafood per week*
|Babies, 0-6 months||0.1 – 0.18% of total energy intake|
|Babies, 6-24 months||10-12 mg/kg/day of DHA|
|Toddlers, 2-4 years||EPA + DHA: 100-150 mg per day|
|Children, 4-6 years||EPA + DHA: 150-200 mg per day|
|Children, 6-10 years||EPA + DHA: 200-250 mg per day|
The usual intake of DHA among toddlers and children is low– closer to an average of 100 mg per day.
As mentioned, some studies show improvements in cognition and behavior as the result of supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids including DHA, especially ADHD.
Best Sources of DHA Foods
Sources of pre-formed DHA include oils from micro-algae, fatty fish (especially salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring), fish oil, meat and eggs.
Click below to download my Top DHA Foods.
Breast milk is a source of DHA, as mentioned above, but the concentration of DHA in breast milk varies amongst women, and is dependent on the diet and whether or not they use a prenatal DHA supplement.
It’s been noted in U.S. women, the concentration of DHA in breast milk is higher when the diet consists of fish, eggs and milk compared to women who consume a highly processed diet without sources of seafood.#ad: DHA benefits your child's brain: intellectual, social, & emotional development. #DHA #brain #baby #toddler #mom Click To Tweet
How to Optimize DHA for Kids
The DHA benefits are clear: DHA is very important for your baby’s brain growth, development and vision.
Here are some steps you can take to ensure you and your baby get enough DHA:
Get 200 milligrams (mg) DHA every day if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an average daily intake of 200 to 300 mg of DHA will ensure a sufficient concentration of DHA in breast milk.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the 2015 DGA recommend a minimum of 8 – 12 ounces of low mercury fish per week. This can be achieved by eating 2 seafood meals per week (e.g., herring, canned light tuna, salmon).
Canned light tuna is an affordable option to meet these recommendations.
If you’re worried about contaminants, the AAP says,
“The concern regarding the possible risk from intake of excessive mercury or other contaminants is offset by the neurobehavioral benefits of an adequate DHA intake and can be minimized by avoiding the intake of predatory fish (e.g., pike, marlin, mackerel, tile fish, swordfish).”
If you have a history of poor nutrition (chronic dieting, eating disorder, un-supplemented vegan, or poor food quality, for example), you may require a DHA supplement as well as multivitamins.
Breastfeed your baby, for the first 6 months, if possible.
Breastfeeding is beneficial for all babies, and for several reasons. However, in order to maximize DHA, focus on DHA foods in your diet through the consistent use of DHA-rich food sources or a DHA supplement.
If not breastfeeding, choose an infant formula with a DHA supplement.
In 2002, infant formula makers started adding DHA to more closely mimic breast milk and in response to studies showing higher IQ scores from babies who were breastfed compared to those fed formula.
Offer seafood each week to your baby or toddler.
For your baby or toddler (6 months to 2 years), include 3 – 4 ounces seafood per week. You can divide this into two servings weekly.
For children 2 – 4 years of age, ensure about 6 ounces of seafood per week. Again, you can divide this total 6 ounces into smaller, child-size portions.
If you’re not sure how to introduce fish to your child, I’ve got some great suggestions for you!
Switch to mostly olive and canola oils.
This will cut down on the omega-6 fatty acids in the diet, which compete for the enzymes that ensure optimal DHA in the body.
How do you ensure your child is getting enough DHA?
- “Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan” by Weisner et al in Nutrients, 2016
- 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA)
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- KidsSafe Seafood
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Special Message: ADHD in Children
Some children with ADHD have been shown to have low amounts of DHA in their diet and may benefit from a focus on DHA foods or a DHA supplement in their diet, especially when it comes to literacy. I cover this in detail in my program called The ADHD Diet for Kids.
Sign up to get access to my free video The ADHD Diet for Kids: Dodging the Most Common Nutrition Mistakes (so You Can Help Your Child Focus, Behave and Grow).