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New evidence favors fortified baby formula

September 14, 2009 |  9:01 pm

The fatty acids DHA and ARA are credited with boosting the IQs of babies who are breast-fed. Both substances are abundant in breast milk, and they help build connections among neurons in the developing brain.

So it would stand to reason that adding DHA and ARA to infant formula would be good for babies. But the scientific evidence so far has been mixed.

Formula A new study published Tuesday in the journal Child Development finds that the two fatty acids do contribute to infant brain power -- under the right circumstances.

Texas researchers subjected 202 9-month-old babies to a series of problem-solving tests involving blankets and rattles. For example, the researchers placed a rattle out of reach on the far end of a blanket. The babies had to figure out that in order to grab the rattle, they had to pull the blanket toward them.

All of the babies in the study were on formula -- some since birth, some since they were weaned at 6 weeks, and some since they were 4 to 6 months old. The formula was distributed to parents as part of the study, and neither parents nor researchers knew which babies received regular Enfamil formula and which got a version fortified with DHA and ARA at levels comparable to breast milk.

For babies in the first two groups, those who got DHA and ARA had significantly higher scores on the problem-solving tests compared with their counterparts on regular formula. In addition, among babies who drank formula from Day One, the proportion that successfully completed all three tests was 51% in the DHA/ARA group and 29% in the control group. Among babies who were weaned at six weeks, the results were 46% for the DHA/ARA group and 13% for controls.

The results are meaningful because a baby’s ability to solve these kinds of tasks has been correlated with enhanced IQ and vocabulary development later in childhood, according to the study.

The babies who transitioned from breast milk to formula when they were 4 to 6 months did equally well on all of the tests whether they got the enhanced formula or not. Perhaps babies in that group hadn’t been drinking the supplemented formula long enough to get an IQ boost, the researchers speculated. Or maybe all of the babies had been fed naturally enhanced breast milk for so long that the fortified formula was superfluous.

Scientists have yet to nail down exactly how DHA and ARA contributes to higher IQ, but they speculate that the fatty acids collect in the central nervous system, thereby speeding brain processing. Some studies also suggest that DHA and ARA bolster the brain’s prefrontal cortex, making it easier for infants to shift their focus from one problem to another, allowing them to tackle more complicated tasks, according to the study.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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