- Babies need DHA, a type of omega-3.
- Some foods that tout omega-3s only provide ALA, a different type.
- Read the label to make sure your little one is getting DHA.
Many of us parents have heard about the importance of omega-3 for our baby. It occurs naturally in breast milk. It’s added to infant formula. You can even get omega-3 eggs and milk.
But did you know there are different kinds of omega-3s? And only one—DHA—supports a baby’s developing brain, eyes, and nervous system. Here’s how to make sure your little one is getting the right omega-3.
What are omega-3s?
Omega-3s are types of healthy polyunsaturated fats. They come in three forms—ALA, EPA, and DHA—and they’re important for people of all ages (we do a deeper dive on these acronyms and the health benefits below).
ALA is the easiest form to find in food. Flaxseed, chia seeds, and soybeans are all good sources.
When we consume ALA, it’s partially converted by our liver into EPA, then further to DHA. There’s a snag, though—converting ALA to DHA isn’t very efficient. Evidence shows that the human body only converts about 0.1% to 5% of the ALA we eat into DHA. (1,2)
Because our bodies can’t make DHA in adequate amounts, we need to get it in our diet.
Your baby’s brain needs DHA!
Among omega-3s, DHA is the one that plays a critical role in the growth and development of the brain, eyes, and nerves. (3,4,5)
Between the third trimester of pregnancy and two years of age, your little one’s brain is going through a growth spurt. It’s a precious window of opportunity—brain cells are being created, and the ability of those brain cells to mature and communicate with one another depends in part on the accrual of DHA. (6) A baby’s developing brain easily takes up and uses dietary DHA during this time, with lasting effects on cognitive and visual ability.
DHA is important after that, too. Your kiddo’s brain cells continue to incorporate available DHA into their membranes well into the preschool years. (7) As they get older this process slows, but the brain still uses DHA for other important functions. For example, the frontal cortex—the part of the brain responsible for problem solving, planning, and focus—is creating connections between neurons all through childhood and into adolescence. This includes a process called myelination—the laying down of a fatty layer around each neuron that makes connections more efficient—and that process requires DHA. (6)
Among omega-3s, DHA is the one that plays a critical role in the growth and development of the brain, eyes, and nerves.
Good things come in omega-3s
What do ALA, EPA, and DHA stand for anyway?
ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
ALA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid. “Essential” means it has to be obtained from the diet because it can’t be made in the body. ALA is found in plant-based foods like flaxseed, chia, hemp, soybeans, walnuts, canola oil, tofu, and some beans and enriched foods.
Health-wise, it’s an anti-inflammatory. Reducing inflammation in the body supports the heart, lungs, joints, and immune system, and can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure in adults.
EPA (eicosapentanoic acid)
EPA is made directly from ALA in the body, though in very small amounts. It’s also found in fatty fish and (in tiny quantities) in kelp and other kinds of seaweed. EPA is also an anti-inflammatory, stronger than ALA.
DHA (docosahexanoic acid)
Compared to ALA and EPA, DHA has the most health benefits by far! Our bodies make this fatty acid from ALA and EPA (though not very efficiently). Like EPA, DHA is mostly found in fatty fish, and to some extent in kelp and other seaweed. In addition to its vital role in brain and eye development, it’s a potent anti-inflammatory (more potent than ALA).
Why are they called omega-3s? It’s a chemistry thing. Each type is basically a long chain of carbon atoms, with the first double bond (“omega” in the jargon of organic chemistry) at the third carbon. Simple!
Why do certain fish have omega-3s?
(Hint: You Can Call Me Al-gae)
Fish that are good sources of EPA and DHA don’t produce these omega-3s naturally. The original source is algae. Phytoplankton eat these omega-3-synthesizing algae, fish eat the phytoplankton, and other fish eat those fish, accumulating EPA and DHA in their tissues.
How can my little one get DHA?
Okay, we’ve seen what DHA does. Now, how do we make sure our little ones are getting it?
Infants typically get the DHA they need from breast milk and formula. As they grow and begin to eat purees and solid food, though, they’ll naturally take less of those easy sources of DHA. Yet their daily recommended intake stays the same. The important move is to keep the DHA coming so your little one continues to get enough.
DHA can be tricky to source in solid foods, but it’s not too hard if you stay on top of it. Good sources of DHA include:
- Fatty fish like salmon, pacific cod, arctic char, and herring
- Omega-3 eggs
- Kelp and other types of seaweed (though only in tiny amounts)
- DHA-enriched milk
- Baby foods with DHA
DHA inside? Look at the label
Many packaged foods—bread, eggs, baby food—tout omega-3s. But very often they contain ALA, not DHA. Here are some ways to confirm whether there’s DHA on board.
- Look for specific mentions of DHA. It’s not easy to include DHA in food, and brands that do it have made a special effort. Any company that went through the trouble will likely trumpet DHA on its packaging.
- If the package only says omega-3, flip it over and check the ingredients. Look for algae oil or fatty fish like salmon. If you only see flaxseed, chia seeds, and the like, you’re in the ALA zone.
- If a food only provides ALA, know that your baby is getting a healthy nutrient but not the DHA they need for brain development.
1 Thomas B. Efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man. Curr Opin in Clin Nutr and Metab Care. 2002
2 Plourde M. Extremely limited synthesis of long chain polyunsaturates in adults: implications for their dietary essentiality and use as supplements. Appl Physiol, Nutr, and Metab. 2007
3 Innis S. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Neural Development to 2 Years of Age: Do We Know Enough for Dietary Recommendations? J of Ped Gastroenterol and Nutr. 2009
6 Lauritzen L. DHA Effects in Brain Development and Function. Nutrients. 2016.