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Omega-3 DHA Boosted Infants' Brains
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Health authorities worldwide agree that the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid called DHA is essential throughout pregnancy and nursing.
Omega-3 DHA is needed to help prevent premature birth and its complications, and ensure proper brain and eye development and healthy birth weight.
Accordingly, U.S. and international health agencies advise pregnant and nursing women to consume at least 200mg of DHA daily – by eating fatty fish or taking fish oil supplements – and DHA is added to many infant formulas.
Two years ago, researchers reviewed the clinical evidence, and as they wrote, “Numerous studies have found positive correlations between blood DHA levels and improvements in cognitive or visual function outcomes of breastfed and formula-fed infants.” (Hoffman DR et al. 2009)
However, the evidence that supplemental DHA actually yields enhanced brain development – instead of just ensuring adequate development – is mixed.
For example, in one of the largest trials published so far, the children of women who took 800mg of omega-3 DHA per day in the last half of pregnancy did not score higher on tests of thinking or language development through six months of age.
For more on that study – and links to our reports about positive evidence – see “Babies See No Omega-3 Brain Gains”.
The varying outcomes of studies testing the impact of supplemental DHA on child development could well be due to differences in study design and statistical power, the doses and duration of DHA supplementation, and other factors (Hoffman DR et al. 2009).
Healthy, full-term infants generally receive adequate amounts of DHA from their mothers in the last trimester.
In fact, mothers’ bodies strive to transfer as much DHA to fetuses and breast milk as possible … a fact that makes it hard to detect developmental advantages from DHA-fortified formula when pregnant/nursing mothers consume adequate amounts of this key omega-3.
However, there is abundant evidence indicating that supplemental DHA benefits preterm infants and infants of mothers with low DHA levels … and that infants who are neither breastfed nor given DHA-fortified formula are at risk of suboptimal brain and eye development.
For more information, see the “Omega-3s & Child Development” section of our news archive.
Now, researchers from Texas and Canada report developmental advantages in infants fed DHA-fortified formula … thereby adding more positive evidence to the picture.
Texan-Canadian trial shows brain gains from DHA-fortified formula
The international team conducted their trial in 141 infants, who were fed formula exclusively from birth through four to six months of age, and then received formula (and infant foods) until they were 12 months of age.
The infants were assigned randomly to receive one of four infant formulas, each containing a different percentage of DHA:
  • 0% DHA (control group)
  • 0.32% DHA
  • 0.64% DHA
  • 0.96% DHA
All of the DHA-supplemented formulas also contained 0.64% arachidonic acid (ARA), which is an omega-6 fatty acid essential to child development and human health.
The infants were assessed for their mental, psychomotor, and behavioral development when they were 18 months of age, using a collection of developmental tests called the Bayley Scales of Infant Development II (BSID II).
Compared with the infants fed un-supplemented formula, all of the infants who received DHA-fortified formula had significantly higher scores for mental development, language, and emotional regulation.
No differences between DHA-supplemented and un-supplemented infants were seen in other parts of the BSID II cluster of tests.
Nor were there any advantages seen in the infants receiving the higher levels of DHA (0.64% and 0.96%), which suggests that the standard level of DHA in infant formula – 0.32% – is enough to ensure optimal cognitive development in healthy infants.
This fits with the conclusions of the 2009 review we quoted above: “Trials with formulas providing close to the worldwide human milk mean of 0.32% DHA were more likely to yield functional benefits attributable to DHA. We agree with several expert groups in recommending that infants receive at least 0.3% DHA, with at least 0.3% ARA, in infant feedings ...” (Hoffman DR et al. 2009)
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