DHA: Your Gift to your Baby’s Brain
A previously little known fatty acid – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) has gotten a great deal of attention in the recent years as a key player in babies’ early development. Researchers have learned that essential fatty acids, DHA in particular plays a crucial role in the growth of brain tissues. And you, as a mother are the delivery agent of your baby while you’re pregnant.
Lipids, or fat make up 60% of the weight of the brain. One third of that fat is composed of essential fatty acids, which make them vital for the development of the brain and nervous system even before your baby enters the world. These fats help build the membranes that that enable efficient transmission of nerve signals and protect the neurons. Here’s what you need to know about DHA to fuel your baby’s optimum development.
When is DHA Most Important
According to experts, there are a number of critical periods during which the environmental factors such as nutrition can have a profound influence on a baby’s development. For the human brain, such a window is the prenatal period.
This key prenatal period begins five weeks after gestation, the time when brain cells start dividing rapidly, and it continues till the end of the second trimester. Using brain imaging techniques like MRIs and PET scans, researchers have determined that a baby’s neurons multiply most rapidly between months 4 and 7, the time by which your baby’s brain has already produced most of the 100 billion neurons that they have at birth. It is during the second and the third trimester that DHA is absorbed and stored extensively and efficiently by your baby.
The Proven Boost
There is still so much left to be studied about the relationship between infant development and a mother’s prenatal DHA intake. What researchers do is is:
- Fish and other seafood are a major source of DHA
- There is a strong relationship between a mother’s consumption of fish during pregnancy and that later cognitive function of her child.
This boost has been demonstrated in several studies in the last decade including a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that reported children with high levels of DHA when tested prenatally had continued to demonstrate improved memory when tested at school age. On the other hand, some studies have also discovered an association between a mother’s low intake of seafood during her pregnancy and an intellectual performance that was less than normal.
The associations between intake of seafood blood levels of DHA and development of the central nervous system have been established thoroughly. But what about DHA fortified supplements – Do they work the same way for the development of your baby’s brain. A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association which conducted in 2010 on 2,399 mothers and their babies found no improvement in the cognitive abilities of the babies whose mothers consumed 800 milligrams of DHA on a daily basis during their pregnancies, when these babies were tested at the age of 18 months. In contrast, the studies in which children were tested at the age of 4, the ones whose mothers had taken DHA supplements during pregnancy did showcase intellectual advantages. Experts say that the age at which cognitive testing is carried out is the key to this differentiation.
Beyond the Brain
Essential fatty acids like DHA play a major role in the production of prostaglandins, which regulates inflammation and immune reactions. High levels of DHA during pregnancy have been reported to influence length of gestation, birth weight and the immune system health of the infant. A 5-year, double blind, placebo controlled study published in February 2013 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that babies, whose mothers consumed 600 milligrams of DHA during pregnancy had larger head circumference and were bigger in both length and birth weight, as compared to the control group. In addition to that, DHA babies were less likely to be born preterm(prior to 34 weeks gestation)
Additionally, in a 2011 study published in the Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers from the Emory University demonstrated that babies who had taken DHA supplements had fewer instances of cold at the age of 1 to 3 months, and even at 6 months. Even if they did catch a cold, they experienced certain symptoms for fewer days.
Another way in which experts measured the effects of DHA on the development of central nervous system is through testing the health of the eyes and visual acuity. Several studies also have linked higher levels of DHA in blood to retinal health and improved vision acuity. For example, researchers in Canada have found that babies with high prenatal DHA content in their blood had more acute vision when they were tested at school age.