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Does This Formula Ingredient Actually Make Your Baby Smarter?

Photograph by Twenty20

If you've ever tried to decipher the ingredient list on your baby's formula and wondered what they all do, you're not alone. There's a lot of stuff in there! One of those ingredients is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, which is a kind of Omega-3 acid), something naturally found in fish and fish oil, and has been thought to improve brain development. But as it turns out, it's a little more complicated than just adding DHA to formula to improve your baby's cognitive and vision development.

"During pregnancy and the first few years of life, DHA accumulates in the brain and retina of the eye and plays an important role in neural and vision development,” reports The New York Times.

Experts found that babies who were formula-fed in the '90s had lower levels of brain DHA than babies who were breastfed. The end result of those studies, naturally suggested that DHA should be added to infant formulas to improve brain development. No-brainer, right? Well, not exactly.

Depending on mom’s diet, breast milk can also contain varying concentrations of DHA. So it makes sense that formula would be supplemented with DHA for babies who don't breastfeed or who combination feed. In fact, all major formula brands in the U.S. now contain DHA. However, more recent studies say the addition of DHA in formula have shown no conclusive evidence or clear pattern of benefit that the supplement actually improves a baby's brain development.

Prenatal DHA supplements also don't show conclusive evidence of making your baby smarter, but some research does show other benefits, such as lengthening a pregnancy by a few days (but that doesn't reduce the rate of premature births).

The conclusion? Pregnant women and women of childbearing age should get enough DHA in their diet naturally, rather than take supplements to get the max benefit of DHA. Experts recommend consuming at least 200 milligrams of DHA per day for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding—a big increase from the daily average consumption of 60 milligrams that most women get.

So how can you get more DHA naturally? In 2014, the FDA updated advice recommending pregnant women eat 8-12 ounces of low-mercury fish (about 2-3 servings) per week to support fetal growth and development. For those who can't or don't eat fish, flax oil is a good source of Omega-3 fats, and grass-fed meat, too.

As with most things in life, vitamins and supplements are designed to fill in deficiencies in an otherwise healthy diet rather than replace them. And there are foods you can incorporate into your diet while pregnant to help make your baby a little smarter, but you shouldn't rely on DHA in your baby's formula for that. Some things are better left to good old-fashioned parenting rather than science.

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