It’s always been in breast milk, then it appeared in infant formula and now you can find it in baby food. It’s DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). So what is DHA and do you need to be feeding your baby DHA-supplemented baby food?
What is DHA? DHA is a special fatty acid critical to brain and eye development in babies and young children. Babies get a bunch of it during the last trimester of gestation and then become dependent upon getting DHA in their diets. DHA is found in breast milk (as it turns out, levels in breast milk depend upon your diet) and it first was added to infant formula here in the U.S. in 2002.
What does it do? Studies have shown that DHA, when added to a baby’s diet at certain levels, can improve brain development and vision. While this was initially felt to be true only in preemies, recent studies have supported a neurodevelopmental role for DHA in term babies. And if that is isn’t interesting enough, try this on for size: A new study released this summer (abstract findings presented at the World Congress of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition) found a tight connection between DHA exposure in infancy and resistance from upper respiratory infections later in childhood. Wow. While its suspected that the effects reported in this study may be seen with the levels of DHA found in Mead Johnson’s Enfamil Lipil or Nestle Good Start, the study was conducted among children fed Enfamil Lipil.
Here’s the problem. When it comes to brain and eye development, no one knows exactly how much DHA a baby needs. Several organizations have taken a stab at minimums but they’re nothing better than a stab. And these stabs are based on minimum levels proven to make a difference. The American Dietetic Association, for example, has suggested that infant formula contain at least 0.2% of its fatty acid content as DHA. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been conspicuously silent on DHA since its introduction into infant formula.
So back to our question. Do children need DHA in their baby food? No one knows the answer to this question. While we may accept the mounting data showing that certain levels in infant formula when taken at standard baby volumes are associated with improved brain development and vision, there’s no evidence that the addition of more DHA in baby food offers any advantage.
But as with most elements of our baby’s diet, the body takes what it needs and what remains feeds the Diaper Genie. And so it may be with DHA. But at least we all feel good believing we’ve tried to make a difference.
More later as the DHA story evolves.