You know how important it is to give your child the best possible start in life, and you do everything to make this happen. When it comes to infant nutrition, one important step in setting your child up for success is ensuring your little one receives an adequate intake of DHA.
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an essential fatty acid important for both formula-fed and breast-fed infants. DHA is critical to the healthy development and functioning of the brain.
Keep reading to learn more about what DHA is and its role in supporting your baby’s well-being, and things you should consider when selecting a DHA-enriched formula. Plus, we discuss nutritious brain-boosting foods you can incorporate into your child’s diet once they start weaning!
What is DHA?
The importance of DHA in infant formula can’t be understated. But before we get into why DHA and fatty acids, in general, are important to your baby’s health, let’s first discuss what essential fatty acids are!
Our bodies are composed of various kinds of fat. Most of these fats our bodies can create from other fats or raw materials. However, the story is a bit different for a type of fat known as essential fat.
Our bodies can’t produce essential fat from scratch. Instead, we acquire it from consuming foods that contain nutrients like omega-6 (ARA) and omega-3 fatty acids (DHA). DHA and ARA are an important part of our diet and are involved in many bodily functions, from storing energy to supporting immunity!
Is ARA (Arachidonic Acid) The Same Thing as DHA?
DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid) are both essential fatty acids that work in unison to support babies’ development. Both DHA and ARA are present in human breast milk, and research has demonstrated that DHA and ARA are important for the brain development and visual acuity of infants!
Are Fatty Acids Like DHA Required in Infant Formulas?
Due to the valuable role that DHA plays in infant nutrition, the European Union has required DHA to be added to infant formula at ~0.33%-1.14% of total fatty acids. However, ARA is not currently required to be added to European formulas.
In contrast, DHA and ARA are not required ingredients in American infant formula. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics does advise that at least 0.2% of total fatty acids in baby formula be composed of DHA and that 0.6% come from ARA.
Despite DHA and ARA not being required in American infant formula, many brands choose to add these fatty acids to their formulas (but DHA tends to be added at lower levels than required by the European Union).
Why is DHA in Formula?
As mentioned previously, in some parts of the world, DHA is a required ingredient in infant formula due to its beneficial effects on babies’ development and is thus added to satisfy legal requirements. But even when it’s not required by law, many infant formula manufacturers are adding DHA to support infant health and to produce infant formulas that are more similar to the composition of breast milk.
Let’s take a closer look at the importance of fatty acids in infant formula below!
DHA supports cognitive function and vision 🧠👀
Several studies have indicated that infants who receive adequate amounts of DHA may experience improved visual acuity, better problem-solving skills, and even superior motor coordination later in life compared to those who do not get enough of this fatty acid.
DHA helps support immunity ❤️
Infants should receive a balanced ratio of DHA and ARA similar to the levels present in breast milk to support immune system development and function. Studies have shown that feeding infants formula with an optimally balanced ratio of DHA and ARA positively impacts immune system markers.
What to Consider When Choosing an Infant Formula With DHA
There are a few things to consider when choosing an infant formula with DHA such as the quality of the source of DHA. Infant formula manufacturers source their DHA from fish oil or algal oil, though fish oil is more common. We’ll discuss how DHA differs depending on whether it comes from fish or algal oil in the next sections!
Fish Oil-Based DHA 🐟
Depending on how DHA is extracted from fish oil, it can take on two molecular forms: ethyl esters (EEs) or triglycerides (TGs). TGs are believed to be the better source as this form is more natural and better absorbed by the body than EEs.
Some parents are concerned about the purity of fish oil due to ocean-borne contaminants found in fish. However, plant-based DHA extracted from the ocean rather than grown in controlled lab environments may be subject to similar contaminants. Thankfully, DHA extracted from fish oil can be purified through a process known as CO2 extraction, and DHA sourced from algae is pure when grown in sterile lab conditions!
Algal Oil-Based DHA 🌿
DHA is naturally present in, and can be sourced from, algae. Algae is the primary source of DHA because fish only obtain DHA through eating algae. Like humans, fish’s bodies can’t produce this essential fat from scratch.
Plant-based DHA has the added advantage of being vegetarian-friendly. It can also be a more sustainable option popular with environmentally conscious parents because it doesn’t contribute to the problem of overfishing (though there are also sustainable sources of fish oil-based DHA).
Some parents also report that plant-based DHA is better accepted by their babies because it doesn’t have the fishy smell that fish oil-based DHA sometimes does!
What’s The Better Source of DHA?
There are differences depending on how DHA is sourced, but, studies have confirmed that DHA sourced from fish or algal oil are both nutritionally similar and have similar effects on the body.
The choice of offering your child a formula with plant or fish oil-based DHA is personal. When deciding between infant formulas, it is strongly recommended that you discuss your options with your child’s pediatrician. Your child’s physician can assist you in determining how much DHA and ARA your baby needs, if they require DHA and ARA supplementation, and what other nutrients could be beneficial for your baby’s growth.
Child-Friendly Brain-Boosting Foods With DHA
Many foods are rich in omega-3 fatty acid. When included in your little one’s diet, these foods can help improve their cognitive function! During the first 6-months of life, babies can only have breast milk or formula. So, foods should only be introduced after the 6-month mark.
Once your child is of age, you can begin introducing them to the foods listed below for a brain-boosting effect:
- Fatty fish like salmon and herring 🎣
- Seaweed 🌿
- Eggs 🥚
- Yogurt 🐮
- Grass-fed beef 🥩
You might also choose to give your child a DHA supplement to help them satisfy their nutritional needs, but before offering supplements to your child, you should consult your pediatrician.
We hope this article answered your questions about what this fatty acid is and why it’s so important in infant formulas. Due to the role of DHA in infant health, it’s recommended that it be incorporated into baby formulas to help ensure optimal development. Ideally, manufacturers should add DHA and arachidonic acid in an optimal ratio similar to the levels found in breast milk for the best benefits.
Plant-based DHA and DHA from fish oil are both valuable sources of this vital nutrient with different pros and cons. You should consult your pediatrician to help you determine which formula is right for your baby. Finally, once your little one has reached weaning age, you may wish to start incorporating DHA-rich foods for an added brain boost!
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