Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in infants born at term

Review question: Does feeding full-term babies with formula milk enriched with long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) result in improved vision and overall neurodevelopment compared with feeding formula milk not enriched with LCPUFA?

Background: LCPUFA is a type of fat that is essential for the development of brain and vision in newborn babies. Breast milk contains adequate amounts of LCPUFA and hence is considered better than formula milk. Some milk formulae with added LCPUFA are commercially available.

Study characteristics: This review analysed studies that compared outcomes of full-term babies (born at ≥ 37 weeks of pregnancy) who were given formula milk enriched with LCPUFA versus outcomes of full-term babies fed formula milk without enrichment with LCPUFA.

Key results: Review authors found that full-term babies fed formula milk supplemented with LCPUFA did not have better outcomes than were reported for full-term babies fed formula milk without LCPUFA.

Quality of evidence: We considered the overall quality of evidence to be low.

Authors' conclusions: 

Most of the included RCTs reported no beneficial effects or harms of LCPUFA supplementation on neurodevelopmental outcomes of formula-fed full-term infants and no consistent beneficial effects on visual acuity. Routine supplementation of full-term infant milk formula with LCPUFA cannot be recommended at this time.

Read the full abstract...

The long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA) are considered essential for maturation of the developing brain, retina and other organs in newborn infants. Standard infant milk formulae are not supplemented with LCPUFA; they contain only alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid, from which formula-fed infants must synthesise their own DHA and AA, respectively. Over the past few years, some manufacturers have added LCPUFA to formula milk and have marketed these products as providing an advantage for the overall development of full-term infants.


To assess whether supplementation of formula milk with LCPUFA is both safe and beneficial for full-term infants, while focusing on effects on visual function, neurodevelopment and physical growth.

Search strategy: 

Two review authors independently searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; December 2016), MEDLINE (Ovid, 1966 to December 2016), Embase (Ovid, 1980 to December 2016), the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL; 1980 to December 2016) and abstracts of the Pediatric Academic Societies (2000 to 2016). We applied no language restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

We reviewed all randomised controlled trials (RCTs) evaluating effects of LCPUFA supplemented versus non-supplemented formula milk on visual function, neurodevelopment and physical growth. We did not include trials reporting only biochemical outcomes.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors extracted data independently. We assessed risk of bias of included studies using the guidelines of the Cochrane Neonatal Review Group. When appropriate, we conducted meta-analysis to determine a pooled estimate of effect.

Main results: 

We identified 31 RCTs and included 15 of these in the review (N = 1889).

Nine studies assessed visual acuity, six of which used visual evoked potentials (VEP), two Teller cards and one both. Four studies reported beneficial effects, and the remaining five did not. Meta-analysis of three RCTs showed significant benefit for sweep VEP acuity at 12 months (log of the minimum angle of resolution (logMAR)) (mean difference (MD) -0.15, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.17 to -0.13; I2 = 0; three trials; N = 244), but meta-analysis of three other RCTs showed no benefit for visual acuity measured with Teller cards at 12 months (cycles/degree) (MD -0.01, 95% CI -0.12 to 0.11; I2 = 0; three trials; N = 256). GRADE analysis for the outcome of visual acuity indicated that the overall quality of evidence was low.

Eleven studies measured neurodevelopmental outcomes at or before two years. Nine studies used Bayley Scales of Infant Development, version II (BSID-II), and only two of these studies reported beneficial effects. Meta-analysis revealed no significant differences between LCPUFA and placebo groups in BSID Mental Developmental Index (MDI) scores at 18 months (MD 0.06, 95% CI -2.01 to 2.14; I2 = 75%; four trials; N = 661) and no significant differences in BSID Psychomotor Development Index (PDI) scores at 18 months (MD 0.69, 95% CI -0.78 to 2.16; I2 = 61%; four trials; N = 661). Results showed no significant differences between the two groups in BSID-II scores at one year and two years of age. One study reported better novelty preference measured by the Fagan Infant Test at nine months. Another study reported better problem solving at 10 months. One study used the Brunet and Lezine test to assess the developmental quotient and found no beneficial effects. Follow-up of some infants in different studies at three, six and nine years of age revealed no beneficial effects of supplementation. GRADE analysis of these outcomes indicated that the overall quality of evidence was low.

Thirteen studies measured physical growth; none found beneficial or harmful effects of supplementation. Meta-analysis of five RCTs showed that the supplemented group had lower weight (z scores) at one year of age (MD -0.23, 95% CI -0.40 to -0.06; I2 = 83%; N = 521) and that the two groups showed no significant differences with respect to length and head circumference (z scores). Meta-analysis at 18 months and at two years revealed no significant differences between the two groups with respect to weight (kg), length (cm) and head circumference (cm). GRADE analysis of these outcomes indicated that the overall quality of evidence was low.