DHA and ARA during in infancy

What are they for?

Infants have an essential need for fatty acids from breast milk and formulas. They use them for all their developing tissues. Fatty acids help to make fat membranes, which are what every single cell in the body is made of.

The brain and retina are packed with billions of highly organized groups of cells, which are constantly connecting and networking as children learn. As a result, these organs have the greatest need for fatty acids. Fatty acids are also used to as a spare storage of energy.

DHA and ARA during infancy

Docosahexenoic acid (DHA) is the major omega-3 fatty acid that is involved in neurological, visual and immune development. In the brain, DHA is most abundant of all brain omega-3 fats. In the eye, DHA is also involved in the ability of the eye’s retina to respond to light.

Arachidonic acid (ARA) is the main long-chain omega-6 fatty acid used for brain development. It helps with nerve firing in the brain, as well as immune system function, blood vessel formation and bone growth[1].

The infant brain builds up stores of DHA and ARA from late pregnancy (through the placenta) and over the first 24 months[2] (through breast milk). Both DHA and ARA are found in breastmilk at the level of 0.32% (for DHA) and 0.43% (for ARA)[3], as a percent of total fatty acids.

Cognitive benefits

Research has shown that a mum’s diet that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, can decrease the risk of early premature birth by up to 58% [4] , which leads to improved birth weights v. Premature babies are known to have problems with learning ability. Following mums’ supplementation with omega-3 DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) (as fish oil), infants showed improvements in their cognitive function at 2½ years of age[6].

One of the first research studies to look at cognition effects of DHA and ARA in infants, used a formula containing DHA and ARA[7]. At 10 months, those infants who consumed the test formula (with both) showed improvements in basic problem-solving behaviors, compared to infants given a formula with no DHA or ARA.

Eye function benefits

The benefits of omega-3 DHA also extend beyond cognitive function. Infants who were enrolled in a research trial called the “DHA Intake and Measurement of Neural Development (DIAMOND) study” and fed a formula containing at least 0.32% of DHA, combined with ARA, showed consistent improvements in their brain response to vision stimulation. This improvement lasted across the first 12 months and was consistent across different sites where the trial was performed[8].

Immune function

Evidence for DHA and ARA is also starting to uncover different facts about the developing immune system. A study by Lapillone et al.[9] reported that significantly fewer infants who were fed a formula containing DHA and ARA suffered bronchitis, croup or diarrhea, compared to infants fed control formulas without these fatty acids.

Furthermore, when the infants from the DIAMOND study were re-analyzed for their profiles of allergies or eczema, a reduction was seen in the rates of wheezing and skin allergies in the infants given DHA, compared to no DHA[10].

Ensuring a healthy 1000 days and beyond

Term infants normally consume both in combination as part of breast milk, and therefore both are considered essential[11]. While DHA levels can vary with individual maternal intakes, levels of ARA are relatively constant in human breast milk worldwide[12]. Also, the maternal status of DHA and ARA before and during breastfeeding directly affect the health and development later in childhood, on many different levels[13]. So, ARA and DHA are considered an essential combination as part of complete infant nutrition.

  1. Hadley et al. Nutrients. 2016 Apr 12;8(4):216.
  2. Martinez. J Pediatr. 1992 Apr;120(4 Pt 2):S129-38
  3. Brennan et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun;85(6):1457-64.
  4. Kar et al. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2016 Mar;198:40-46.
  5. Ramakrishnan et al. Food Nutr Bull. 2010 Jun;31(2 Suppl):S108-16.
  6. Dunstan et al. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2008 Jan;93(1):F45-50.
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  8. Birch et al. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Apr;91(4):848-59.
  9. Lapillonne et al. BMC Pediatr. 2014 Jul 2;14:168
  10. Foiles et al. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2016 Mar;27(2):156-61.
  11. Brenna et al. Nutr Rev. 2016 May;74(5):329-36.
  12. Lien et al. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2018 Jan;128:26-40.
  13. Koletzko et al. Ann Nutr Metab. 2014;65(1):49-80.