One of the debates in infant nutrition concerns whether dietary 18: 3n-3 (linolenic acid) can provide for the accretion of 22: 6 n-3 (docosahexaenoic acid, DHA) in neonatal tissues. The objective of the present study was to determine whether low or high 18: 3 n-3 v. preformed 22: 6 n-3 in the maternal diet enabled a similar 22: 6 n-3 content in the phosphatidylcholine (PC), phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), phosphatidylinositol (PI) and phosphatidylserine (PS) of glial cells from whole brain (cerebrum and cerebellum) of 2-week-old rat pups. At parturition, the dams were fed semi-purified diets containing either increasing amounts of 18: 3 n-3 (18: 2 n-6 to 18: 3 n-3 fatty acid ratio of 7·8: 1, 4·4: 1 or 1: 1), preformed DHA, or preformed 20: 4 n-6 (arachidonic acid)+DHA. During the first 2 weeks of life, the rat pups from the respective dams received only their dam's milk. The fatty acid composition of the pups' stomach contents (dam's milk) and phospholipids from glial cells were quantified. The 20: 4n-6 and 22: 6 n-3 content in the stomach from rat pups at 2 weeks of age reflected the fatty acid composition of the dam's diet. The 20: 4n-6 content of PE and PS in the glial cells was unaffected by maternal diet treatments. Preformed 22: 6 n-3 in the maternal diet increased the 22: 6 n-3 content of glial cell PE and PS compared with maternal diets providing an 18: 2n-6 to 18: 3 n-3 fatty acid ratio of 7·8: 1, 4·4: 1 or 1: 1 (P<0·0001). There was no significant difference in the 20: 4 n-6 and 22: 6 n-3 content of glial cell PC and PI among maternal diet treatments. It was concluded that maternal dietary 22: 6n-3 is more effective than low or high levels of maternal dietary 18: 3 n-3 at increasing the 22: 6 n-3 content in PE and PS of glial cells from the whole brain of rat pups at 2 weeks of age. The findings from the present study have important implications for human infants fed infant formulas that are devoid of 22: 6 n-3.