DHA and ARA: Two important fatty acids for baby’s development

From the magical day when you first held your baby in your arms to the (also magical) day when he will blow the first candle many changes will have occurred: his weight will be tripled, and his brain will more than twice its birth size. He will have learned to recognize and smile at you, to crawl and you may even have heard his first word. 

Such an exceptional growth must be sustained by an adequate nutrition, and indeed baby’s needs are very different from older children.  

Fats (also called lipids) are a key component of the diet during the first year of life. Breast milk, which provides integral nutrition during the first 6 months, contains around 4g of fat per 100 ml, thus, dietary fat supplies around 40 to 60% of the newborn energy needs.

Fat in breast milk is not only a source of energy, but it also supplies fatty acids (lipid ‘building blocks’) for organs such as the brain, which is very rich in lipids (they constitute 50% of dry matter weight). Breast milk provides both, saturated and unsaturated fatty acids which are very important to fill the needs of the growing baby. Among the unsaturated fatty acids there are two very long ones that are very important for infant development: DHA and ARA.

DHA : An Omega 3 fatty acid beneficial for baby’s vision and cognitive development

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an unsaturated omega-3 fatty acid which is naturally found in fish, seafood, and algae oil. 

DHA accumulates in the baby’s brain during pregnancy and up to the first two years of life representing 10-20% of total brain and eye lipids. 

There is a good scientific consensus that DHA is important for normal vision and cognitive development, and some evidence indicates that DHA may also have a role in preventing allergy.

 It is considered a key nutrient during infancy and an intake of 100 mg/d is recommended for babies.

DHA can cross the placenta to reach the foetus, and it is incorporated in breast milk during lactation. Research has shown that the level of DHA in breast milk is associated with maternal intake, so it is recommended that pregnant and lactating mothers have an extra intake of 200 mg/day of DHA either from dietary sources or from supplements. 

Babies who are not breastfed should get DHA from infant formula and from fish when they start complementary feeding. 

In Europe, the inclusion of DHA is mandatory in infant formula since 2020.

DHA accretion slows down with age and reaches a plateau at adulthood, so the early years are a critical window for accumulation of DHA in the brain.

ARA: An Omega 6 fatty acids with a key role in cognition, muscle & Immune development

ARA (arachidonic acid) is an unsaturated omega-6 fatty acid found in meat, poultry and eggs. 

It is always present in breastmilk in higher levels than DHA regardless of maternal intake. As DHA, ARA also deposits in the brain and plays a role in cognition, muscle, and immune development.

Scientific research suggests that an adequate balance between ARA and DHA during early life is critical, and that baby’s cognitive development is better when ARA is present at the same or greater amount than DHA, which are the proportions found in breast milk.

Can the baby’s body make DHA and ARA?  

Yes, but only in small amounts. ARA and DHA can be synthesized in the human body from linoleic and linolenic acids, found in vegetable sources such as flaxseed, soybean, and canola oil. 

Furthermore, the efficiency of DHA and ARA production in the body is determined by genetics, so some populations are less efficient to synthetize them than others. In any case, the production of ARA and DHA in the body may not be sufficient to cover the important needs of the growing baby. 

What can I do to ensure that my baby gets the amount of DHA and ARA that he or she needs?

During pregnancy and breastfeeding make sure you include fatty fish, seafood, eggs, and poultry in your diet, you can also talk to your doctor about DHA supplementation. 

If your baby is not receiving breast milk, make sure that the infant formula you choose contains both DHA and ARA, and once he is developmentally ready for diversification include foods like fatty fish, eggs, and poultry in his diet.