If you’re a card-carrying label reader–scouring the fine print on food packages and looking for basic, wholesome ingredients–you may have wondered why the ingredient list on your toddler’s yogurt includes…sardines?

Why Toddlers Need DHA

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that may help your toddler’s growth and development.

Sardine and anchovy oil are natural sources of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that may help your toddler’s growth and development. DHA is found in abundance inside the brain. Synapses—the areas of the brain where messages are sent and received—are particularly rich in DHA. So it’s thought that DHA might be involved in communication between brain cells. That’s why dietitians like myself sometimes refer to DHA-rich fish as “brain food”.

First, a quick primer. There are three kinds of omega-3 fatty acids:

  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found in fish and their oils
  • EPA (icosapentaenoic acid) found in fish and their oils, together with DHA
  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) found in plant foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola and soybean oils.

Omega-3s can be trickier to get than other kinds of fats because the foods that are rich sources of omega-3s (like fish and nuts) aren’t mainstays of the average American diet. Yet these fatty acids have so many potential health benefits. Omega-3s are being studied for their possible link to improved heart health, memory, and mood. Some research has also found sharper vision in babies with higher blood levels of DHA—as well as higher IQs later in childhood among kids fed DHA-fortified formula compared to those given formula without it.

If you breastfed, your baby got DHA through breast milk. Infant formulas are now fortified with the fatty acid as well. But once your baby is exclusively eating table food, DHA can be harder to come by. According to government surveys, kids under the age of 6 are only getting a fraction of the DHA they need everyday.

Natural sources of DHA include fish such as salmon, herring, trout, sardines, and tuna (and their oils), shrimp, and much smaller amounts in chicken. Remember that most babies can start eating fish after six months. Though fish used to be discouraged in the first year of life because of potential allergic reaction, those recommendations have changed (if you or your baby have a history of food allergies, talk to your pediatrician about the best time to introduce fish). You can puree fish in the first months of starting solids and progress to soft pieces of poached or baked fish.

You may have heard that you can get DHA from plant foods like walnuts and flaxseed. These foods are actually rich in ALA. Though it’s true that the body converts some of the ALA in these foods into DHA, the amount converted is quite small–less than one percent! So these foods just can’t be relied on as good sources of DHA.

Foods that are fortified with the fatty acid can help boost your child’s intake of DHA. YoToddler yogurt and YoTots pouches contain fish oil, naturally rich in DHA. Other fortified foods may be supplemented with algae, a vegetarian source of DHA (such as certain brands of eggs, which come from chickens fed a diet enriched with algal oil).

But however you choose to get it—through fish, fortified foods, or a combination of both—know that brain-building DHA will help your toddler get off to a great start.


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