Breast milk DHA

Breast milk is the perfect food for babies
Breast milk is the perfect food for babies.

What is not always appreciated is that the amount of many nutrients in breast milk depends on the quality of the mother’s diet. This is especially true for the omega 3 fat known as DHA.  Women who eat more DHA in their diet have more DHA in their breast milk.

The ideal concentration of DHA in breast milk is not known.  But what we do know is that babies who are fed breast milk with higher levels of DHA also have higher DHA in their tissues compared with babies who are fed milk with lower levels of DHA.  Having higher DHA in blood, the brain and other organs may improve the way these organs develop.

Studies involving preterm children show that supplementing breastfeeding women with DHA to increase their milk DHA results in improvements in visual and some aspects of cognitive development of their children in the first 2 years of life.  This suggests that preterm babies need breast milk with a good supply of DHA.  This is perhaps not surprising as babies born early have not had the full benefit of an omega-3 fat supply in late pregnancy.

Scientists have found that term babies flourish regardless of the DHA content of the breast milk they receive.  Studies generally find no difference in developmental outcome of term children of women who were given DHA supplements during lactation compared with those children of women getting no supplements.

The best way to increase the level of DHA in your breast milk is by increasing the intake of foods rich in DHA.  But DHA is never completely absent from breast milk, even for women who have no DHA in their diet (those who avoid all animal products).  This highlights the importance of DHA for the baby because the mother will make some DHA from vegetable sources of omega-3 fats in her diet to ensure that small amounts are supplied in breast milk.

  • Who is at risk of low breast milk DHA levels?

    -Women who avoid eating meat, fish and eggs or eat very small quantities.

    -Babies who are breastfed and born preterm may need higher levels of DHA than breastfed babies who are born at term

  • What to do to maintain good breast milk DHA levels?

    -Eat a variety of foods that contain omega-3 fats, for example, fish, lean red meat, eggs or foods fortified with omega-3 long chain fatty acids (selected yogurts, breads).

    -If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may need a supply of oil from marine algae that contains DHA.