DHA Supplementation During Infancy Improves Performance in Early School Years
The importance of omega-3 fatty acids in brain development and in healthy brain function is well recognized1. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA), a major lipid found in the brain, is essential for healthy brain function. Low brain DHA in animals leads to impaired learning and behaviour. In human infants, DHA is essential for development of vision and cognition. DHA intake in toddlers and children is typically low. Scientists in Kansas have published evidence that supplementing newborns with DHA can produce measurably enhanced school performance by the age of 5 or 62.
Kansas study design and results
John Columbo and colleagues studied 81 children between the ages of 18 months and 6 years. The children in the treatment group received variable amounts of DHA (0.32%, 0.64%, 0.96% of total fatty acids) and arachidonic acid (AA, 0.64%). There were 19 children in the placebo group. The following positive effects were observed:
- Rule-learning and inhibition tests in 3 to 5 year-olds
- Peabody Picture Vocabulary Tests in 5 year-olds
- Weschler Primary Preschool Scales of Intelligence at age 6
There were no effects observed at 18 months in tasks of advanced problem solving, simple inhibition or spatial memory. Collectively, these results imply that supplementing infants with omega-3 fatty acids DHA and AA, while not having an immediate effect, produce long-term improvements in learning during the early school years.
What this all means for you and your baby
Typically, the DHA content of the typical diet of a toddler or child is sub-optimal at the best of times. The period from birth to six months is a critical, DHA-demanding phase of brain development. Growth spurts in the brain occur at two years of age, between seven and nine years and during the mid-teens.
While it is encouraging to know that there is something that can be done to give our babies and toddlers a boost in the intellect department that will help them get along when they start school, we have to be wary of going too nuts about numbers. Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, etc., were fed diets in childhood that were similarly low in DHA and it does not appear to have held them back academically.
In adults, one way of increasing omega-3s is to eat at least three servings of oily fish each week. If your baby or toddler is not a big fan of the smoked salmon, there are DHA supplements in the form of drops that can be added to breastmilk, formula or solid food.
1Kuratko, CN, et al, “The Relationship of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) with Learning and Behavior in Healthy Children: A Review.” Nutrients. 2013.
2Columbo J, et al, “Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2013.