Importance of DHA in brain development of a toddler

The mega role of DHA in the brain development of a baby

To help your child grow up to be a happy and healthy adult, you need to focus on both his mental and physical development. So, it is not enough to provide him with sufficient carbohydrates, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. You also need to focus on omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is one such acid that plays a crucial role in the brain development of a toddler. Wondering why you shouldn’t miss out on this important nutrient in your little one’s diet?

Read on to understand the importance of DHA and its sources.

What is DHA?

Docosahexaenoic acid, which is known as DHA, is an omega-3 fatty acid that is important for the development of the foetal brain, and motor skills and visual acuity in children. It is the key structural component of nerve cells and is considered essential for the growth and functional development of the brain in kids.

What are the sources of DHA?

  • Preformed DHA must be supplied through diet as the synthesis and conversion from other fatty acids is inefficient. Very few food sources have high levels of DHA. This is the reason why most children suffer from a low intake of DHA
  • DHA can be obtained from fishes like Indian salmon or rawas, rohu, pomfret, and hilsa. Fish oil, like cod liver oil, is also a very good source of DHA. However, some commercially available fish oils for kids contain higher quantities of another omega-3 fatty acid called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). This has to be converted into DHA in the human liver. So, make sure you read the label when you buy DHA supplements and remember it is always best to derive DHA from natural food sources.
  • DHA is also available in some vegetarian sources like walnuts, flaxseeds, soybeans, and canola oil. In flaxseeds, DHA is present in its precursor form, alpha linolenic acid. The body converts this to DHA.
  • After birth, the baby's omega-3 status depends on his or her mother's DHA status, breastfeeding and/or formula feeding, and his/her ability to process and use lipids. They have limited ability to synthesize DHA from ALA. Premature babies have a high chance of going through omega-3 deficiency as they don't get the advantage of being in the mother's womb for the complete trimester.
  • Diet alone may not be able to replenish the necessary levels of DHA for brain growth and development.

Challenge with vegetarian sources

Vegetarian sources don’t contain DHA in its original form and have alpha linoleic acid (ALA) which gets converted into DHA in the human body. Conversion of DHA from ALA can vary widely and is relatively inefficient in humans. Such small amounts of DHA obtained through conversion are not sufficient. And hence, DHA supplements might be necessary if your child is a vegetarian.

Brain development and importance of DHA

The brain of your baby undergoes a period of rapid growth during the last trimester of pregnancy, and the first 2 years of childhood. There is a rapid increase in brain weight from birth to the time he or she becomes 2 years of age. This is the period of brain growth spurt, during which, nutrient insufficiency can significantly impact brain function.

Several processes like myelination of the brain’s frontal lobes start very early, at around 6 months of age. Myelination is an important process where each neuron is coated with a protective fatty layer called myelin. The availability of adequate DHA in the tissues is important for this process. The frontal lobes of the brain are rich in DHA and are thought to be responsible for effective planning, problem-solving, and focused attention. The development of high-level cognitive functions is associated with the child’s social, emotional and behavioural development.

Rapid neuronal maturation, synaptogenesis, and grey matter expansion happen during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Accumulation of a sufficient amount of DHA in the brain is important to support these vital functions.

DHA has several positive effects on the central nervous system too, specifically on the brain and retinal development, which are responsible for foetal maturation, infant development, and visual acuity.

Some positive effects of DHA are as follows:

  • DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that supports brain tissue growth and function, especially during infancy and development.
  • Accumulation of DHA in the CNS is essential for the normal development of eyes and brain.
  • Sufficient levels of DHA are needed for the development of gray matter and frontal lobes. These regions in the brain can process information, store memories, and regulate emotions. These regions are also essential for problem-solving, sustained attention, planning, and behavioural development.

How does DHA help boost the learning ability and memory of a toddler?

Low levels of DHA are reported in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or dyspraxia. ADHD is a condition where the child finds it challenging to pay attention and control impulsive behaviour. Dyslexia is a learning disorder where the child has difficulty in reading and identifying speech sounds. Children with dyspraxia find it challenging to do activities that require movements and coordination. However, providing DHA supplements can improve their symptoms.

DHA insufficiency is also observed in some healthy children, without learning or behavioural problems, because of poor intake. Improvement of DHA status can benefit them, especially during the growth spurt phase.