DHA for babies and toddlers
Vicki Koenig, MS, RD, CDN
Ever get a baby to eat sardines or anchovies? Not easy, but the benefits are considerable. These provide the most important omega-3 fatty acid: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Most of us don't get enough, especially babies and toddlers.
There are two kinds of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6. Essential means the fatty acid must come from food or supplements. Omega-3 fats come from breast milk, flax, walnuts, some algae and fatty fish. Omega-6 fats come from meats, safflower, soy, corn and vegetable oil.
The brain is 60% fat! This structural fat supports the myelin sheath, covering billions of neurons in our brains. A substantial portion is DHA — the same as found in breast milk and fatty fish.
Your baby needs DHA for visual and mental development
During the last trimester and postpartum, babies accumulate DHA in the brain and eyes. During a baby's first year, the brain triples in size. Babies' diets influence that development. Research suggests that infants receiving DHA from breast milk or infant formula with DHA have higher IQs and more mature visual skills.[1,3,4,6] The average DHA content of breastmilk in the United States is among the lowest in the world. This may change, as many pregnant and lactating mothers are currently taking DHA supplements.
Stonyfield created the first baby yogurt with DHA. The DHA in YoToddler comes from purified fish oil. It's an organic-compliant fish oil with a high concentration of DHA and EPA, another beneficial omega-3 fatty acid.
Seafood is the richest source of DHA. Although omega-3 oil is also found in walnuts, flax and canola oil, humans aren't very good at converting these sources into the DHA our body needs.
DHA research: infancy and beyond
- In a 2005 study, 5- to 12-year-old children with developmental coordination disorders who received DHA-containing fish oil had significant improvements in learning, behavior and psychosocial adjustment. The researchers suggested that a lack of these oils contributes to neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
- In a 2003 study, children whose mothers consumed fish oil during pregnancy through 3 months postpartum scored higher on mental development tests at 4 years old than did children whose mothers received corn oil.
- A 2004 study showed accelerated vision development of DHA-supplemented 6- to 12-month-old weaned infants.
- In a review of over 50 research articles in 2005, evidence suggested that changes in brain DHA are positively associated with changes in cognitive or behavioral performance. DHA is helpful for mood and depression, as well as a decreased incidence of heart disease.
DHA in our diets
Americans lack omega-3. We don't eat enough fish, and we consume too much vegetable oil and processed fats. Babies and toddlers need the best diet possible. We think adding DHA to a yogurt for babies and toddlers is a "no-brainer."
For more information:
 Harris RJ. "Nutrition in the 21st century: what is going wrong." Arch Dis Child 2004 Feb; 89(2):154–158.
 Helland IB et al. "Maternal Supplementation with Very-Long-Chain n-3 Fatty Acids During Pregnancy and Lactation Augments Children's IQ at 4 Years of Age." Pediatrics 2003 Jan; 111(1):e39–e44.
 Hoffman DR et al. "Maturation of Visual Acuity is Accelerated in Breast-Fed Term Infants Fed Baby Food Containing DHA-Enriched Egg Yolk." J Nutr 2004 Sep; 134(9):2307–2313.
 Muskiet FAJ et al. "Is Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) Essential? Lessons from DHA Status Regulation, Our Ancient Diet, Epidemiology and Randomized Controlled Trials." J Nutr 2004 Jan; 134(1):183–186.
 McCann JC and Ames BN. "Is docosahexaenoic acid, an n–3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid, required for development of normal brain function? An overview of evidence from cognitive and behavioral tests in humans and animals." Am J Clin Nutr 2005 Aug; 82(2):281–295.
 National Institutes of Health. "NIH News Alert: Formula Additives Boost Small Children's Intelligence in Study." March 6, 2000.
 Richardson AJ and Montgomery P. "The Oxford-Durham Study: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Dietary Supplementation with Fatty Acids in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder." Pediatrics 2005; 115(5):1360–1366.
For a comprehensive list of fish to emphasize and to avoid, visit the Healthy Child, Healthy World website.