DHA and infant sleep

As a new mom belonging to a very active Facebook parenting group, I have sat in on many, many discussions on that Holy Grail of topics: How to Make Your Child Sleep through the Night. I have subsequently seen multiple methods being put forth—-cry-it-out sleep training, no-cry sleep training, sleeping away from them, sleeping with them, rocking, walking with them, absolute quiet, white noise machines, absolute darkness, strict nap schedules, standing on your head, sacrificing small animals, and so on and so forth.

As I read through these discussions, I became aware that I may be lucky: my baby appears to be a pretty good sleeper.

I have co-slept from the start, and while she started sleeping 8-hour stretches from three months onward, few nights were actually picture perfect, and she would sometimes take 3-4 hours to fall asleep. My nights remained intermittently rocky till she was about five months old. From that point on, something magical happened: she started sleeping quickly and through the night regularly, and would even self soothe when she stirred from sleep.

Our bedtime routine is probably wildly antithetical to that of most others: her bedtime is a late one; we start around 10 pm, and if I’m lucky she is asleep by 10:30, and if I’m not, she is asleep by 11/11:30. This is what I do: I tuck myself in bed with her and let her play and romp around, and there is absolutely no need for quiet or darkness. When she gets tired, I read her signals right, haul her in my lap, feed her milk, and she drops off and wakes up in the morning.  No nap scheduling, or walking or rocking required.  Every time a developmental molehill comes around (with teething being the biggest fly in the ointment so far), my nights become a little/very rocky again, but with all things difficult and inexplicable, it passes in a few days, or if I am really unlucky, a couple of weeks.

As I pondered a thread where people who had NOT sleep trained were talking about when their baby started sleeping through the night (apparently well after 1 year was common), and what they had to do to make them sleep, it seemed that my baby was a much better sleeper than average, and much easier to put down to sleep as well. What makes this so?

Now, experts will concur that the ability to sleep through the night has to be developmentally acquired, and requires brain maturation/development to occur. So maybe this occurred a little on the earlier side in my child, as it does in quite a few children, but what makes it so? Genetics? Sheer luck? Or do specific factors contribute?

Given what I knew about Omega3s and brain development, and the fact that I have included a rich high-quality DHA source (arctic cod liver oil) in my daughter’s homemade formula (see here), I then decided to check whether DHA is linked to baby sleep.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that a few studies suggest that it is, indeedy.

While these above studies weakly suggest that DHA intake may improve sleep, there clearly has not been much research done on it, and far, far better designed studies can be done to better address this question. I do not know if anybody is gearing up to do them, but in the meantime, how can you ensure that your baby is getting DHA—or more importantly, that he/she is getting ENOUGH DHA?

While infants can make DHA themselves from fatty acid precursors, their ability to do so is poor. They really need to get it through food, and indeed, DHA is an important component of breast milk.

Now, while maternal diet has little or no influence of many components of breast milk, this does not hold true for fatty acids in breast milk. This is an immensely important point. To elaborate, mothers who consume a lot of coconut-based products will have more lauric acid in their breast milk, while mothers who eat a lot of fatty fish or certain types of seaweed (unsure about this point) will have much more DHA in their breastmilk than moms who have a vegan diet.

Thus, simply breastfeeding may not be enough to provide an optimal amount of DHA to your child. It depends on your diet. Obviously, if you are a mom living in Norway who eats wild-caught Atlantic salmon four days a week, you are good. But how many of us have access to diets like that? There are many issues with farmed salmon, for example, and it is not a good source of DHA, unlike wild-caught salmon (as the DHA buildup is diet dependent).

So for many of us, we may have to supplement to get a good amount of DHA in our system to pass on to our children. So for moms who breastfeed, taking a good quality DHA supplement (arctic cold liver oil that has been tested for heavy metals and PCBs) is a very good idea, and may just improve the way your child sleeps. This will also help many more things other than infant sleep, so this is a very good general practice.

Btw, vegetarian sources of DHA are flaxseed oil and walnuts, but again, the question arises, how many walnuts and how much flaxseed oil must one consume to get a good amount of DHA in? Again, to keep it simple, I do recommend that fish oil supplement.

What about infants who are not breast-fed? Obviously, they would benefit from a DHA supplement. A while ago, after the importance of DHA became clear, formula makers decided to add it in. Of course, with an eye on the bottom line, they were not going to add a natural source of DHA (fish oil) to their formulas, because that stuff is expensive, and their goals are always to maximize their profits. Here entered a company called Martek, that makes cheap DHA by extracting it from algae. There are many alleged issues with this product as well as the production process: see here for a synopsis. There are a few alleged safety issues also reported after the consumption of these synthetic DHA containing formulas: see here.

In summary, optimal DHA consumption may promote sleep. Nobody knows what the “optimal” amount is, but we know that natural is best: however, as stated above, few  people can breastfeed for two years while dining on wild caught salmon regularly. With vegetarian options, you may not get enough, and it is hard to say how much is enough. Formulas containing synthetic DHA or DHA-supplemented baby drinks (e.g., Pediasure) should be avoided, IMO, to err on the side of caution. So what is a person to do? I just add a fish oil supplement (Nordic Naturals) to my baby’s homemade formula, and call it a day.

Experiment if you will, and please talk about what you find here if you do. As a I said, it may be a while before good large scale studies are done on this topic.

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6 Responses to DHA and infant sleep

  1. Tiara74 says:

    Very interesting. I’ve always taken a DHA supplement…but stopped when Elena was 1st born (to lazy & tired to remember to take it!). She wasn’t a good sleeper at first but think this had more to do with her broken clavicle & reflux than anything else. Does it just have effect on infant sleep or sleep in general do you think?


  2. sgd02 says:

    Which DHA supplement do you recommend or rather which one do you use? Also, any value in taking the fish oil supplement during the pregnancy given that prenatal vitamins also ‘contain’ DHA?


    • From everything I have read, I am actually not a fan of multivitamins (prenatal or otherwise) anymore. So unless I was throwing up constantly and not able to eat, I would prefer to get folic acid and other B-vitamins directly from eating larger quantities of the right types of food. Even iron can be got from food, especially if you are non-vegetarian. However, all this would take both planning and discipline. However, Vitamin D (diet is a poor source) and Omega3s I would supplement with, given that a pregnant women is forbidden many types of fish. Even if one were taking prenatals, I would make sure that if it has DHA, it is not algal in origin and extracted using hexane. After much meandering, let me get to your question: I like (and use) Nordic Naturals for my Omega-3s.


  3. Gowri says:

    One question? were u feeding your baby breastmilk or only formula? that would make a difference.


  4. Laura says:

    Thanks for posting about this (albeit a long time ago). My 4-month old sleeps longer and more regular hours the day after I take a fish oil supplement, so your thoughts echo my own. She has a genetic disorder that affects her melatonin production and therefore she was going to bed at 3am and sleeping until noon, but the difference since I started taking fish oil supplements has been remarkable!


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