DHA and The Developing Infant

Just because the U.S. RDAs don't include DHA doesn't mean this essential fatty acid should be overlooked. In fact, research suggests docosahexaenoic acid, a polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, is critical to a healthy baby and a healthy pregnancy.

  • DHA is essential for fetal brain and eye development. The maternal blood supply of DHA is vital to embryonic development in the first few weeks of pregnancy when brain cell division is most active. Then, DHA content of the cerebrum and cerebellum increases up to five times during the last trimester and again in the first 12 weeks after birth. [ 1 ] A mother must keep her stores of DHA high to meet her child's needs—from conception through nursing—as well as her own.

    The retina, which also contains a high concentration of DHA, develops rapidly in the last half of pregnancy. To give a baby the best chance at good vision it is important to supply DHA during pregnancy and during breastfeeding. Studies indicate that DHA is an essential nutrient for developing optimum visual acuity. [ 2 ]

  • Sufficient DHA may prevent premature births. The results of one preliminary study of 53 women suggest that eating DHA-enriched eggs could decrease the incidence of preterm and low-birth-weight deliveries. [ 3 ] Associating maternal nutrition with premature delivery could help prevent many infant deaths.

  • Low DHA levels may contribute to postpartum depression. Because a developing baby takes the fatty acids it needs from the mother's blood supply, many women's DHA stores decline during pregnancy and get lower with each successive child. [ 4 ] Researchers suggest a link between such DHA deficiency and depression, which may help explain the increased risk of depression among new mothers. [ 5 ]

With all this at stake, your customer may decide to pay extra attention to fatty acid intake before, during and after pregnancy. If she eats a typical American diet she is only getting about 150 mg/day of omega-3 fatty acids compared with the 200­2,000 mg/day recommended by eight international organizations including the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To increase DHA consumption via omega-3-rich foods, which convert in the body to DHA, advise her to incorporate more eggs, cold-water fish (salmon, sardines, herring) and wild game into her diet. A fish oil or microalgae DHA supplement can also help ensure adequate intakes of this essential fatty acid.

—Dena Nishek


1. Clandinin MT, et al. Intrauterine fatty acid accretion rates in human brain: implications for fatty acid requirements. Early Hum Dev 1980 Jun;4(2):121-9.

2. Makrides M, et al. Are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids essential nutrients in infancy? Lancet 1995 Jun 10;345(8963):1463-8.

3. Borod E, et al. Effects of third trimester consumption of eggs high in docosahexaenoic acid on docosahexaenoic acid status and pregnancy. Lipids 1999;34(Suppl)S231.

4. Al MDM, et al. The effect of pregnancy on the cervonic acid (docosahexaenoic acid) status of mothers and their newborns. Department of Human Biology, University of Limburg, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Second International Congress of International Society for study of fatty acids and lipids. Washington 1995 Jun 8-11.

5.Hibbeln JR, et al. Dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids and depression: when cholesterol does not satisfy. Am J Clin Nutr 1995;62:1-9

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