Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is part of a group of long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and is an essential nutrient for the healthy brain development of infants.
This article explains the importance of DHA while breastfeeding.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids: what are they?
There are 3 main polyunsaturated fatty acids.
- Alpha linolenic acid
- Eicosapentaenoic acid
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
They are also known as omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids play an important role in the function of cell membranes throughout the body. Docosahexaenoic acid is found in high levels in the retina (in the eye) and the brain.
DHA is not found naturally in the body and therefore must be obtained from the food we eat or from DHA supplements.
Why is DHA while breastfeeding important for babies?
Essential fatty acids have many important health benefits for babies.
DHA, in particular, is important for optimal visual and cognitive development in infants.
Certain areas of the brain are not fully developed at birth.
In certain studies involving animals, low levels of docosahexaenoic acid in the brain showed lower levels of learning and cognition.
Other studies have found maternal fish oil supplementation in pregnancy was associated with a lowered risk of premature birth and low birth weight.
This is why most infant formulas now contain a DHA supplement.
Do babies get enough DHA from breast milk?
The concentration of breast milk DHA in lactating women is variable across different populations. Dietary consumption of foods rich in DHA has a positive effect on breast milk composition.
On average, the amount of DHA found in breast milk is lower than the amount of DHA supplementation in infant formula. Like other essential nutrients that are added to formula, the DHA in breast milk is more bioavailable.
The recommended intake to support the optimal health of nursing mothers and their breastfed infants is at least 200 mg per day.
Should breastfeeding mothers take fish oil supplements?
If you don’t eat much fish, it might be difficult to get enough omega 3 from your diet alone. Fish oil supplements provide a natural source of DHA for breastfeeding women.
Fish oil supplements are a concentrated form of the omega 3 fatty acids found in fish. To make sure breastfed babies get enough DHA from breast milk, dietary supplements are commonly recommended. The recommended fish oil supplemental dose is 500 mg per day.
If you took a prenatal vitamin during pregnancy, or you continue to take prenatal vitamins in the postpartum period, you might already be meeting the recommended DHA intake without taking an additional fish oil supplement.
Check with your healthcare provider if you’re unsure.
There are other dietary supplements commonly recommended for pregnant and lactating women.
For more information, you can read BellyBelly’s article Vitamin D While Breastfeeding | Why It Is So Important?
Foods that increase DHA in breast milk
Maternal consumption of DHA can influence the amount of essential fatty acids in breast milk.
Breastfeeding mothers can easily increase their breast milk DHA levels by eating low mercury containing fish 2-3 times a week. Fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, are the highest sources of essential fatty acids.
Pregnant and lactating women are advised to consume low mercury containing fish. Frequently eating fish that are high in mercury might pose a risk to unborn or breastfed infants.
Fish that contain high levels of mercury, and should therefore be avoided by pregnant and lactation women, are:
- Orange roughy
- King mackerel.
Other foods that are rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Flaxseed oil
- Plant oils
- Fortified foods, such as certain brands of milk, eggs and infant formula.
For more information on how your diet can change your breast milk, you can read BellyBelly’s article 11 Foods That Improve Breastmilk Production.