DHA: Brain Food for Baby?
A certain type of fat is critical for your baby's brain and nervous system. Find out more about the importance of DHA for you and your baby.

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Picture of dha-rich salmon DHA: Brain Food for Baby?

If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, you know it's essential to eat well and take your vitamins. Calcium, iron and folic acid are important for you and your unborn baby. But did you know that a certain type of fat is critical for your baby's brain and nervous system before and after birth?

This fat is known as docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. It is one of three main fatty acids in the omega-3 family. DHA is found in the brain and retina (eye). It is believed to play an important role in early brain and eye development.

During the last trimester of pregnancy and continuing through the first two years of life, DHA levels in the brain rapidly increase. Compared to the rest of the body, the brain and nervous system contain very high levels of DHA.

Why worry?
The average pregnant woman consumes only about 60 mg of DHA per day. If you are lacking, your body will use its own reservoir to give it to your growing baby in utero and then through your breast milk. But the less you have, the less there is for your baby. And though more research is needed, some small studies have shown that mothers lacking in DHA may be more likely to have postpartum depression.

Sources of DHA
Some experts advise that pregnant and breast-feeding women take in at least 200 mg of DHA a day. But so far, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not set a recommended daily amount. Adequate intake may help ensure that enough of this essential fat is deposited in the brain and other tissues (through the placenta and then breast milk).

Women can increase their intake of DHA by:

  • Eating two servings of low-mercury fatty fish a week, such as salmon, sardines or herring.
  • Eating products with added DHA, such as fortified eggs and milk. (Check labels to be sure you get the recommended amount.)
  • Taking a prenatal vitamin that contains DHA. Be sure to check the label for mg amounts.

If your prenatal vitamin does not contain DHA, ask your doctor if a supplement would be right for you.

If you do not plan to breast-feed, make sure to give your baby a formula that contains added DHA.

What about flax oil or walnuts?
Flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil and some leafy greens are sources of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is converted into DHA in your body. DHA, though, is more readily used and available when taken in its present form. So, it is best to go straight to the source rather than rely on the conversion process from ALA, which is not as reliable.

Eating fish safely
You want to eat enough oily, fatty fish to reap the DHA benefits but not enough to add too much mercury to your diet. Remember these guidelines:

Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, fresh tuna, tilefish

Eat sparingly (6 oz. or less per week):
Canned (or packaged) albacore tuna and freshwater fish caught by family and friends

Eat carefully (up to 12 oz. per week):
Shellfish, canned (or packaged) light tuna, farm-raised fish and store-bought freshwater fish

Eat freely:
Salmon (opt for wild or organically-farmed), sea bass, sole, flounder, haddock, halibut, ocean perch, pollack, cod and trout

Finally, it's important to control your intake of omega-6 fatty acids, which compete with omega-3 fats. Omega-6 fats are found mainly in grain-fed beef and poultry, processed foods with fat and in oils such as corn, safflower and sesame. A healthy diet should consist of roughly two to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3's. The typical American diet, though, contains about 20 times more omega-6's than omega-3's.

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Contributing Writer
Created on 06/05/2009
Updated on 01/10/2012
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish.
  • UCLA School of Medicine. Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders: an analysis of epidemiological and clinical data.
  • Gardiner PM, Nelson L, Shellhaas CS, et al. The clinical content of preconception care: nutrition and dietary supplements. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2008;199(6 Suppl 2):S345-S356.
  • March of Dimes. DHA omega-3 fatty acids are essential to health of pregnant women and babies.
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