Human milk contains n-3 and n-6 LCPUFA (long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids), which are absent from many infant formulas.

During neonatal life, there is a rapid accretion of AA (arachidonic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in infant brain, DHA in retina and of AA in the whole body. The DHA status of breast-fed infants is higher than that of formula-fed infants when formulas do not contain LCPUFA.

Studies report that visual acuity of breast-fed infants is better than that of formula-fed infants, but other studies do not find a difference. Cognitive development of breast-fed infants is generally better, but many sociocultural confounding factors may also contribute to these differences.

The effect of dietary LCPUFA on FA status, immune function, visual, cognitive, and motor functions has been evaluated in preterm and term infants. Plasma and RBC FA status of infants fed formulas supplemented with both n-3 and n-6 LCPUFA was closer to the status of breast-fed infants than to that of infants fed formulas containing no LCPUFA.

Adding n-3 LCPUFA to preterm-infant formulas led to initial beneficial effects on visual acuity. Few data are available on cognitive function, but it seems that in preterm infants, feeding n-3 LCPUFA improved visual attention and cognitive development compared with infants receiving no LCPUFA. Term infants need an exogenous supply of AA and DHA to achieve similar accretion of fatty acid in plasma and RBC (red blood cell) in comparison to breast-fed infants.

Fewer than half of all studies have found beneficial effects of LCPUFA on visual, mental, or psychomotor functions. Improved developmental scores at 18 mo of age have been reported for infants fed both AA and DHA. Growth, body weight, and anthropometrics of preterm and term infants fed formulas providing both n-3 and n-6 LCPUFA fatty acids is similar in most studies to that of infants fed formulas containing no LCPUFA. A larger double-blind multicenter randomized study has recently demonstrated improved growth and developmental scores in a long-term feeding study of preterm infants.

Collectively, the body of literature suggests that LCPUFA is important to the growth and development of infants. Thus, for preterm infants we recommend LCPUFA intakes in the range provided by feeding of human milk typical of mothers in Western countries. This range can be achieved by a combination of AA and DHA, providing an AA to DHA ratio of approximately 1.5 and a DHA content of as much as 0.4%.

Preterm infants may benefit from slightly higher levels of these fatty acids than term infants. In long-term studies, feeding more than 0.2% DHA and 0.3% AA improved the status of these fatty acids for many weeks after DHA; AA was no longer present in the formula, enabling a DHA and AA status more similar to that of infants fed human milk.

The addition of LCPUFA in infant formulas for term infants, with appropriate regard for quantitative and qualitative qualities, is safe and will enable the formula-fed infant to achieve the same blood LCPUFA status as that of the breast-fed infant.