Omega-3’s have gotten much more attention in the media in recent years. They play an important role as part of a heart healthy diet, improving your cholesterol profile, reducing inflammation, and even as part of the management of Alzheimers and dementia. But Omega-3’s, especially a certain type called DHA, are of particular importance in pregnancy and for infants up to 2 years of age. We know so much about the importance of folic acid, iron and Vitamin D during pregnancy, yet DHA is often overlooked by many despite how essential it is for babies growth and development. DHA significantly contributes to proper brain and eye development in infants, and studies have shown strong links to advantages in cognitive functioning for babies who received higher levels of DHA than infants who did not. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
What is DHA and why is it important?
The Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of healthy fat that play an essential role in our bodies. There are two types of Omega 3 fatty acids – docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). As mentioned, the most important of these for a growing baby by far is DHA. During the third trimester, the brain begins to grow the fastest it ever has — and continues to grow during the first year of life, with the brain more than doubling in size in this time period. With this rapid brain growth, the brain accumulates more and more of it’s key building block – DHA. This means that your baby’s need for this nutrient skyrockets in a very short time period! A baby will get DHA via mom during pregnancy, and DHA will also be passed through breast milk when breastfed. As a result, the health and nutritional status of the mother during pregnancy and in the first 6 months postpartum have significant effects on the development of the baby’s brain!
Research has shown that mothers who were deficient in DHA during pregnancy compared with their non-deficient counterparts resulted in greater risks to their child’s development. Babies were tested at 2 months for vision, and then for language development at 14 and 18 months, and it was found that women who were deficient in DHA during pregnancy were more likely to have children with slower vision and language development than their non-deficient counter parts. Furthermore, infants were were supplemented with recommended amount of DHA (between 0.2 and 0.5 weight percent of total fat) in formula were shown to have:
- Improvements in sustained attention
- Improvements in problem solving
- Improvements in visual acuity
- Improvements in mental development index for infants
- Reduced upper respiratory infections and allergies
DHA supplementation in preterm infants also showed significant effects on cognition at 10 years of age, especially in girls. Supplementation in infants also showed increased verbal IQ, full-scale IQ, and memory scores at 10 years of age.
So as you can see, not getting enough DHA in your diet during pregnancy is not something you want to risk!
The Problem in Canada
The problem lies in the fact that the majority of Canadian breastfeeding mothers are deficient in DHA. Because DHA is passed on from a mother to her baby via breast milk, this then means that her baby will also be receiving sub-optimal levels. Studies have shown that average DHA intakes in pregnant Canadian women is 82 mg/day. This is far below the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for pregnant and breastfeeding women, which is 300 mg/day of EPA+DHA, of which at least 200 mg/day should be DHA. Furthermore, the average intake of DHA among Canadian breast-fed infants is only about 56 mg/day of DHA, leading experts to comment that their is an apparent nutrient gap between mothers and their infants.
How does a Mom get DHA in her diet?
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, your baby gets DHA from your diet. DHA is mainly found in fatty fish and shellfish such as salmon, herring, sardines and trout. Keep in mind that if you are pregnant, you will need to be careful about the amount of mercury you are getting from seafood sources. Avoid the following high mercury containing fish: fresh/frozen tuna, shark, swordfish, escolar, marlin, and orange roughy. For some help, take a look through this list of low mercury containing fish and make sure to stick to this list:
- pollock (Boston bluefish)
- Atlantic mackerel
- lake white fish
You can also find a good source of DHA from omega-3 enriched eggs, which typically provide 75-100mg DHA. This being said, if you are not getting 2 servings of 2.5 oz of fatty fish each week (or at least two omega-3 enriched eggs daily), you may not be getting enough. In fact, during pregnancy many women are turned off by the thought of seafood completely. Similarly, women who are vegetarians or vegans will find it’s very hard to get enough DHA in through diet alone. Although foods like walnuts, flax seed and canola oil contain a good source of omega-3, they type found in these foods is ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) – a precursor to DHA. The problem is that our bodies are very bad at converting ALA to DHA, so it’s very unlikely that you will be able to get the recommended amount of DHA from ALA alone. This is why I often recommend to these women to take an Omega-3 supplement containing at least 200 mg/day (look for an algae source of DHA if you are vegan). If you are formula feeding, it’s important to look for a formula with 11.5 mg/100 mL of DHA. This level is similar to the average level in breast milk*, and consistent with the positions of Health Experts, including the Dietitians of Canada†.
Is fish on your weekly meal plan?
It’s one thing to know what we need to eat – it’s a whole other thing to actually implement what we know! Making sure you get your recommended amount of DHA for you and your baby is going to require some planning ahead. Many people like cooking fresh vs frozen fish – if this is the case, you will have to make sure you are purchasing your fish no earlier than the day before you plan on eating it. If you are purchasing it frozen, be sure to thaw the fish the night before in the fridge, or place it in a sealed plastic bag and immerse it in a bath of cold water until it defrosts. Planning ahead takes practice in order to make it a habit, but once you get the hang of it, it will become your most useful skill to ensure less hectic mealtimes and a healthy diet full of all the good nutrients you and your baby need.
The great thing about planning seafood for your meals, is that it’s one of the quickest and easiest types of food to prepare, and is a staple weeknight meal in our family! When baked in the oven, fish can be ready in just under 20 minutes. Broiler recipes, like my Simple Salmon Teriyaki, are even quicker!
Try out this recipe for an easy, and super quick Teriyaki salmon recipe!
- 1 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 inch peeled fresh ginger, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, smashed
- 4 salmon fillets
1. Whisk soy sauce, honey, lemon juice, ginger, and garlic together until honey dissolves. Reserve 1/4 cup of marinade in separate bowl, then place salmon fillets, skin-side up, in marinade. Allow to marinate for at least 10 minutes (if you have more time, marinate for 30 min or overnight for more flavor).
2. Set oven rack about 4 inches from the heat source and preheat the oven’s broiler. Place salmon steaks into a broiler pan and broil for 5 minutes. Brush steaks with reserved marinade, and broil until fish is opaque and flakes easily, about 5 more minutes.
*Tip: While the fish is cooking, use this time as an opportunity to steam some veggies on the stove. The quickest cooking ones will be greens like bok choy, which go great with fish!
*Average level of DHA and ARA in worldwide breast milk is 0.32% and 0.47% (mean ± standard deviation of total fatty acids) based on an analysis of 65 studies of 2,474 women) †Dietitians of Canada recommends that infants being formula fed be given a formula with DHA consisting of at least 0.2% of total fatty acids
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