ARA and DHA in early life nutrition

By: Talking Nutrition Editors


A critical time:

  • The first 1,000 days, between the onset of a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday, provides a unique window of opportunity to deliver important nutrients that can help shape a healthy future.
  • ARA and DHA are two primary long-chain omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids that are crucial for cognitive growth, as well as visual and immune development.
  • Once complementary foods are introduced, it is important that infants continue to receive ARA and DHA at efficacious levels.

Crucial combination

It is well-known that the first 1,000 days, between the onset of a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday, is a crucial time for an infant’s growth and development. Recent studies highlight that the long-chain fatty acids arachidonic acid (ARA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – when available together – can have a positive long-term effect on development during this stage. Poor nutrition, however, can have an irreversible and negative impact on a child’s ability to grow and learn.

The composition of breast milk is often studied to establish nutrient requirements for infants, as it is considered the ‘gold standard’ for infant nutrition. ARA and DHA are the primary omega-6 and omega-3 long-chain fatty acids found in breast milk and are passed preferentially across the placenta during pregnancy. Both remain important during early life as breast milk is often the sole or primary source of food, responsible for supplying the infant with the appropriate amounts of energy and essential nutrients.

What research reveals

The early years provide the greatest period of brain growth, and studies show that the infant brain accumulates large amounts of DHA omega-3 – a major structural fat – during development. Research has found that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids can also reduce the risk of an early premature birth by up to 58 percent.1 Additionally, one key study observed that this type of diet resulted in higher birth weights than those with lower omega-3 fatty acid consumption.2 Looking ahead, evidence shows that infants born to mothers with higher levels of DHA at delivery had longer attention spans well into their second year of life 3

Ongoing research points to the unique function that ARA has alongside DHA. For instance, studies show that the nutrient can play a key role in maintaining infant health, through its effect on bone formation, blood flow, blood vessel function and the development and function of the immune system.4 New science also underlines its role in supporting a healthy gastrointestinal tract.5 Although DHA levels can vary depending on individual intake, further research into ARA has found that levels are more stable in human breast milk worldwide, suggesting how important the nutrient is for infant health and development.6

Ensuring a healthy future

Nutrition during the first 1,000 days is considered critical – not only for providing the best start in life, but also by helping to reduce the risk of certain non-communicable diseases later in life. Given that ARA and DHA levels in complementary foods are often low, fortified foods and supplements with a balance of both could prove a viable option for healthy growth and development during this important life stage.

Published on

15 October 2018


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1. S. Kar et al., ‘Effects of omega-3 fatty acids in prevention of early preterm delivery: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized studies,’ European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, vol 198, p40–46.

2. S.F. Olsen, H.D. Joensen, ‘High liveborn birth weight in the Faroes: a comparison between birth weights in the Faroes and in Denmark,’ Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 1985, vol. 39, p27–32. K.N. Kannass et al., ‘Maternal DHA levels and toddler free-play attention,’ Dev Neuropsychol, 2009, vol. 34, no. 2, p. 159–174.

3. K.N. Kannass et al., ‘Maternal DHA levels and toddler free-play attention,’ Dev Neuropsychol, 2009, vol. 34, no. 2, p. 159–174.

4. Ibid.

 5. Harauma et al., ‘Effects of arachidonic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid on brain development using artificial rearing of delta-6-desaturase knockout mice’, Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids., vol. 127, 2017, p.32-39.

6. E. Lien et al., ‘DHA and ARA addition to infant formula: current status and future research directions’, Prostaglandins Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids, 2017.











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