Docosohexaeonic Acid and Arachidonic Acid in Infant Nutrition

Major infant brain growth occurs during pregnancy and continues through the first two years of life. During these times, infants have the greatest need for key nutrients such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, and arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid. DHA is naturally found in breast milk and it accounts for up to 97% of the omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and up to 93% of omega-3 fatty acids in the retina. DHA is an important component of brain, eye, and nervous system tissue. AA, also naturally found in breast milk, is the primary long-chain omega-6 fatty acid in the brain accounting for up to 48% of the omega-6 fatty acids. Infants obtain DHA and AA from their diets, so it is important that mums provide them with a diet that includes both nutrients. Breast milk, which is recognized as the optimal source of nutrition for infants, provides infants with both DHA and AA.  To ensure mum has enough DHA available in her breast milk, a leading recommendation from PeriLip (European Union sponsored research on the influence of dietary fatty acids on the pathophysiology of intrauterine fetal growth and neonatal development), the World Association of Perinatal Medicine, the Early Nutrition Academy, the Child Health Forum and the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) is that pregnant and lactating women should aim to achieve an average dietary intake of at least 200 mg DHA/d preferably from preformed DHA. Other experts recommend that pregnant and nursing women consume 100-200 mg of DHA daily in addition to the 250 mg omega-3 intake recommendation for adult cardiovascular health. 

After breastfeeding stops, infants continue to need DHA and AA. Typical weaning foods such as baby rice, fruit and vegetable puree are low in DHA content. At 12 months of age, the typical finger food toddler diet contains high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and will provide weaned infants with the AA they need for their development.  However, commonly eaten finger foods such as biscuits, fish and chips, and cheese are low in DHA content. Providing infants with weaning foods that are high in DHA will ensure they get proper amounts of DHA.  Oily fish such as salmon or mackerel provide large amounts of dietary DHA.  For mums who are concerned about fish and the dietary exposure of contaminants such as methylmercury and dioxins, there are other options for providing your weaned infant DHA. Look for eggs rich in omega-3 fatty acids or softy, chewy dietary supplements designed for older children.

Whether through breast milk, supplemented follow-on formula, DHA enriched foods, or a vegan DHA supplement, providing DHA and AA to your infant will help to provide a foundation of good nutrition for a lifetime.