DHA: Your Gift to Your Baby’s Brain

In recent years, a previously little-known fatty acid—docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—has gotten a great deal of attention as a key player in babies’ very early development. What researchers have learned: Essential fatty acids, and DHA in particular, play a critical role in the growth of brain tissue. And you’re the DHA delivery agent for your baby while you’re pregnant.

Lipids, or fats, make up 60 percent of brain weight, and fully one-third of that fat is essential fatty acids, making them vital to brain and nervous system development before your baby even enters the world. These fats help build the membranes that protect neurons and enable the efficient transmission of nerve signals. Here’s what you need to know about getting enough DHA to fuel your baby’s optimum development.

When DHA Is Most Important

Experts believe that there are a number of critical periods during which environmental factors such as nutrition can have a profound influence on a baby’s development. For the brain, the prenatal period is such a window.

This key prenatal period begins five weeks after gestation, when brain cells begin dividing rapidly, and continues to the end of the second trimester. Using MRIs, PET scans, and other brain-imaging techniques, researchers have determined that a baby’s neurons multiply most rapidly between months 4 and 7, by which time your baby’s brain has already produced most of the 100 billion neurons he’ll have at birth. It’s also during the second and third trimester that DHA is absorbed and stored most extensively and efficiently by your baby.

The Proven Boost

There is still much to be studied about the relationship between a mother’s prenatal DHA intake and infant health and development. What researchers do know:

- Fish and other seafood are major sources of DHA.

- There’s a strong association between a mom’s fish consumption during pregnancy and the later cognitive function of her child. This boost has been demonstrated in many studies during the last decade, including one (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011) that reported children who had high blood levels of DHA when tested prenatally continued to demonstrate improved memory when tested at school age. On the other side, studies have found an association between a mom’s low intake of seafood during pregnancy and less-than-optimum intellectual performance of her child.

DHA Sources
The association between seafood intake, blood levels of DHA, and central nervous system development has been thoroughly established. But what about DHA supplements—do they work in the same way for the benefit of your baby’s brain development? A 2010 study of 2,399 mothers and their babies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found no improvement in the cognitive abilities of babies whose mothers took 800 milligrams of DHA daily during their pregnancies when the babies were tested at 18 months. But in studies in which children were tested at age 4, those whose mothers had taken DHA supplements during pregnancy did show intellectual advantages. Experts suspect the age at which cognitive testing is performed is key to showing the difference.

Beyond the Brain

Essential fatty acids like DHA also play a role in the production of prostaglandins, which regulate inflammation and immune reaction. The benefit: High DHA levels during pregnancy have been shown to influence length of gestation, birth weight, and infant immune system health. A 5-year, double blind, placebo-controlled study published in the February 2013 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that babies whose mothers took 600 milligrams of DHA during pregnancy were bigger, both in length and birth weight, and had larger head circumferences than the control group. In addition, the DHA babies were less likely to be born preterm (defined as prior to 34 weeks gestation).

What’s more, in a 2011 study published in Pediatrics, the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers at Emory University demonstrated that babies of mothers who’d taken DHA supplements got fewer colds at 1 and 3 months of age (and the same number at 6 months)—and even if they did catch a cold experienced certain symptoms for fewer days at 1, 3, and 6 months.

Yet another way in which experts measure the effects of DHA on central nervous system development is through testing eye health and visual acuity. Numerous studies have linked higher levels of DHA in blood to retinal health and improved visual acuity. For instance, researchers in Canada found that babies who had high prenatal DHA content in their blood had more acute vision when tested at school age.


Zero to Three on brain development. Available at: http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/braindevelopment/


“The role of nutrition in children's neurocognitive development, from pregnancy through childhood” by Anett Nyaradi, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2013). Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3607807/

“Neurophysiologic and neurobehavioral evidence of beneficial effects of prenatal omega-3 fatty acid intake on memory function at school age” by Boucher O. et al., Am J Clin Nutr (2011).

“Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy” by James A. Greenberg, Reviews In Obstetics & Gynecology (2008).

“Prostaglandins and inflammation” by Ricciotti E and FitzGerald GA, Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol (2011).

“Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): An observational cohort study.” by Hibbeln JR et al., Lancet (2007).

“Effect of DHA Supplementation During Pregnancy on Maternal Depression and Neurodevelopment of Young Children” by Maria Makrides et al., AMA (2010).

“Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children's IQ at 4 years of age.”  by Helland IB et al., Pediatrics (2003).

“DHA supplementation and pregnancy outcomes” by Susan E Carlson, et al., Am J Clin Nutr (2013).

“Prenatal Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Infant Morbidity” by Isabelle Romieu et al., Pediatrics (2011).

“Long-term Effects of Prenatal Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake on Visual Function in School-Age Children” by Caroline Jacques, et al., J Pediatr (2011).