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Smart Babies’ Mothers Eat Fish

Study data has repeatedly suggested that breast-fed babies are smarter than their formula-fed equals. The debate among researchers has been about why this is so. Some scientists have argued that breast-fed babies’ cognitive edge is due to specific ingredients found in mother’s milk, while others theorize that non-nutritional factors, like the mother’s education level or the increased amount of mother-infant contact is responsible.

A recent double-blind randomized study provides further evidence in support of the view that two essential fatty acids found in human breast milk, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), are key in optimizing the development of mental function in newborns.

Fifty-six 18-month-old children (26 male, 30 female) who were enrolled in the trial within the first 5 days of life were divided into three groups and fed an assigned diet. One group was given standard infant milk formula; the second group was given this formula with added DHA, and the third group was given the formula enriched with both DHA and AA. The infants were then tested at 17 weeks (4 months), 12 months, and 18 months of age at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest, Dallas, TX.

Researchers evaluated a variety of clinical parameters including the infants’ visual acuity, fatty acid levels and cognitive performance. After 4 months, infants who received DHA and AA had much high plasma blood levels of these essential fatty acids, showing that they were well absorbed. After 18 months, using the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, the infants were assessed by a child psychologist unaware of which formula each infant was receiving. The findings? Infants who had been given either DHA or DHA and AA scored significantly higher on the Mental Development Index of the Bayley Scales test, as gauged by memory, problem solving, discrimination, and other related skills. Infants who had been given the formula enriched with both DHA and AA had, on average, a mental development score seven points higher than infants in the control group. Infants receiving DHA and AA also showed “significant development age advantage” in motor and cognitive skills, and a similar, but less significant trend was also seen on the language subscale.

So, what does this study mean for women who are planning to become pregnant, are pregnant or are currently nursing moms? DHA and AA, the two essential fatty acids that made such a difference in infant cognitive development are labeled “essential” because they cannot be made within our bodies, but must be absorbed from the foods we eat. AA, an omega-6 essential fat that is found in animal products and many polyunsaturated vegetable oils, is ubiquitous in the standard American diet, so ubiquitous that many nutrition experts think we consume way too much of this fat. On the other hand, DHA, an omega-3 fat that is only found in high concentrations in certain of the World’s Healthiest Foods, specifically, wild-caught cold water fish such as salmon, cod, and tuna, is often sorely lacking.

For those who are planning a pregnancy, are currently pregnant or are nursing, this study underscores the need to make DHA-rich foods an integral part of your diet. For suggestions as to how to enjoy DHA-rich fish such as salmon, cod and tuna, truly some of the World's Healthiest Foods, click on the Recipe Assistant, select the fish, nut or seed desired from the healthy foods list, and click on the Submit button. A list containing links to all the World's Healthiest Foods' recipes containing these foods will appear immediately below.


Birch EE, Garfield S, Hoffman DR, Uauy R, Birch DG. A randomized controlled trial of early dietary supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and mental development in term infants. Dev Med Child Neurol 2000 Mar;42(3):174-81.

Beutler J. Life in the balance - the critical need for omega-3 supplementation. Natural Medicine Online 2000 July.

Rum P, Hornstra G. The n-3 and n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid composition of plasma phospholipids in pregnant women and their infants. relationship with maternal linoleic acid intake. Clin Chem Lab Med 2002 Jan;40(1):32-9

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