What Is DHA in Formula?

Every new parent wants to feed their baby a healthy, nutritious diet to give them the best start. One nutrient that gets a lot of attention is DHA. It’s added to nearly all brands of infant formula, and you may wonder:

  • What is DHA in formula?
  • Is there also DHA in breast milk?
  • How much DHA does my baby need?

Here’s what every new parent should know about DHA and why this nutrient is so essential for your baby’s health.

What Is DHA?

DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid. It’s one of the omega-3 fatty acids — the kind of healthy fat you get primarily from oily fish like salmon or sardines. You can also get DHA from a fish oil supplement.

Scientists often refer to DHA as “brain fuel” because it helps the brain and central nervous system develop and work normally. About 60% of your brain is fat, and DHA accounts for a large portion of that fat.

While DHA is important for everyone, it’s crucial for babies. They need a steady supply of this nutrient, even before birth, to fuel their rapidly growing brains and promote healthy vision.

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Why Is DHA in Formula?

Everyone’s body makes small amounts of DHA. But for the most part, it has to come from fish in your diet or a supplement. Of course, newborns and infants can’t eat fish, so they depend on breast milk or formula for nutrition.

If you’re feeding your baby infant formula, they may have lower levels of DHA if their formula doesn’t provide it. Decades ago, research showed breastfed babies had higher DHA levels than babies who drank only formula without DHA.

Because of this, most manufacturers now add DHA to infant formula. You’ll often find it with another essential fat called arachidonic acid (ARA)

Both DHA and ARA are nutrients naturally found in mothers’ breast milk. Adding these essential fats helps infant formula more closely resemble the nutritional content of breast milk.

When breastfeeding, the DHA you get from your diet passes into your breast milk and your baby. The amount of DHA in breast milk varies depending on the foods you eat and whether you take an omega-3 supplement.

To boost the amount of DHA in your breast milk, doctors recommend:

  • Each week, eat at least two servings of oily fish, like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring, or anchovies. Or,
  • Take a daily prenatal supplement with at least 300 mg of DHA while pregnant and breastfeeding.

The Potential Benefits of DHA for Infants

DHA is crucial from the third trimester through at least the first year of your baby’s life. During this time, their body stores large amounts of DHA to support rapid brain and central nervous system growth. Cells in their brain and eyes have exceptionally high levels of DHA.

Healthy DHA levels are essential for eye health and vision. Some evidence also suggests that higher levels of DHA early in life might help a growing child’s brain work better. In particular, some argue that getting more DHA during infancy might reduce the risk of these conditions later:

  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Children with this condition may have behavior problems like anxiety, tantrums, and hyperactive or impulsive behavior. They might also have learning or sleep problems.
  • ASD (autism spectrum disorder). This causes changes in how the brain works and might affect how children learn, communicate, and interact with others. Children with ASD often have restricted or repetitive behaviors.
  • Mood disorders. People with mood disorders like anxiety and depression often have lower levels of DHA.
  • Learning problems. Healthy DHA levels promote normal learning, understanding, and memory.

Should Your Baby Drink Formula With DHA?

There is no doubt that DHA is essential for brain, eye, and nervous system health. But there is no proof that supplementing a healthy baby with DHA-fortified formula will make them smarter or have perfect vision. It’s also not guaranteed that they won’t develop learning or behavior problems in childhood if they drink formula with DHA.

Eating a healthy DHA-rich diet during pregnancy is the best way to give your baby’s brain and vision a healthy start. Doing so helps maximize their DHA levels before birth while their brain and eyes develop.

Doctors also recommend breast milk as the preferred nutrition for your infant until they’re at least six months old. While breastfeeding, make sure you continue to eat fish twice weekly or take a fish oil supplement. That helps ensure your baby gets the DHA they need during their brain’s growth spurt.

If you can’t breastfeed or choose not to, your baby should drink iron-fortified formula. Nearly all brands contain DHA, and it’s safe for babies to take in the amount present in the formula.

If your baby was born early or you had twins or more, they might need extra DHA. A fetus stores most of the DHA you provide during the third trimester. So premature babies might miss out.

And if you carried multiple babies, you might have been unable to supply enough DHA for everyone. Ask your pediatrician if you should provide extra DHA from supplemental drops or DHA-fortified formula.

How Much DHA Should Babies Get?

In the U.S., there is no official daily recommended amount of DHA for infants. But health experts worldwide recommend an average of 70mg to 100 mg per day from birth to 24 months. Feeding breast milk or DHA-fortified formula whenever your baby is hungry should provide this amount.

Look for these signs that they’re hungry:

  • They move their head from side to side.
  • They open their mouth or stick out their tongue.
  • They put their hands, fingers, or fist in their mouth.
  • They show the “rooting reflex” — moving their mouth toward you when you stroke their cheek.

Once your little one starts eating solid food, you can add DHA to their diet from foods like:

  • DHA-fortified infant cereal.
  • Oily fish.
  • Omega-3-enriched eggs.
  • Ground flax meal. These provide another omega-3 fat that’s converted into DHA.

Talk to your pediatrician If you’re unsure whether your baby is getting enough DHA. They can advise you on the best sources for you and your baby and recommend an infant supplement if needed. They can also refer you to a dietitian to help you incorporate DHA-rich foods to nourish your baby’s brain as they grow.

Nutrients. The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and Treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders. LINK

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Does Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation in Term Infants Enhance Neurocognitive Functioning in Infancy? LINK

International Journal of Food Properties. Functional Behavior of Dha and EPA in the Formation of Babies Brain at Different Stages of Age, and Protect From Different Brain-related Diseases. LINK

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Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.