It is widely accepted that breastmilk is the preferred source of nutrition for all babies. Mothers pass some of their own DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, an important omega-3, to their infant while breastfeeding.[i] There is DHA in breastmilk, therefore a baby who is breastfed by a mother who gets enough DHA in her own diet should also get sufficient DHA in his own system.[ii] [iii] DHA is particularly important for a baby who was born prematurely, as the majority of the DHA that gets deposited in the membrane around the brain does so during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy.[iv]
The concern is that many mothers do not eat enough foods rich in DHA to have adequate supplies to pass on to their breastfed babies. According to the American Food and Drugs Act (FDA), 50 per cent of pregnant women ate far less fish than the recommended amount. [v]
What is the Recommended Dietary Intake?
Considering the benefits of DHA from eating fish for growth and development during pregnancy and early childhood combined with the risk of mercury intake from eating too much fish, the FDA recommends breastfeeding mothers to consume a minimum of 2-3 servings of lower-mercury fish per week, or 8 to 12 ounces. However, all fish contain a bit of mercury, which can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it over time.[vi]
Canada’s Food Guide gives similar advice as it recommends that Canadians eat at least two servings (of 75 grams each, which equals to a minimum of 5.3 ounces per week) of fish a week. Canada’s Food Guide also recommends that breastfeeding mothers must not overdo it and eat too much fish because of the risk of mercury, which would be harmful to the mother and the infant.[vii]
Benefits of DHA for infants
Studies show that DHA in a lactating mother’s diet directly affects the amount of DHA that gets transferred to her breastmilk and subsequently to her baby.[viii] Naturally, the amount of DHA in breastmilk differs depending on the geographical location and the diets consumed by the mother during lactation.[ix]
Babies accumulate the majority of DHA into their central nervous system up until about 18 months of age.[x] DHA is found specifically in the outer layer of the cells within the brain. Studies have shown that the concentration of DHA in the nervous system positively impacts the nervous system[xi] and vision. [xii]
Infants need DHA, especially during the first few years of life so their brains, eyes, and nervous systems can develop as they should. Accumulation of DHA in the central nervous system actively occurs during the developmental period of the infant, primarily relying on DHA found within the body’s blood system. Since DHA is mainly found in the outer layer of the brain and in the retina, which is found in the back part of the eye, many scientists have studied its role in brain development, learning ability, and visual acuity.[xiii]
There is DHA in breastmilk and it is sometimes added to certain infant formulas.[xiv] Because we primarily rely on getting DHA from the food we eat, it is important to ensure we are eating a healthy and balanced diet, and taking additional supplements if we fear we may be missing important nutrients. Foods that are rich in omega-3 and specifically DHA, include fish, marine algae, and some fortified foods.[xv]
The inclusion of plentiful DHA in the diet improves learning ability.[xvi] Interestingly, DHA is used as a supplement for premature babies during the first four months after birth in order to promote better mental development.[xvii] It has also been shown that the visual acuity of healthy, full-term, formula-fed infants is increased when their formula includes DHA.[xviii]
DHA supplements while breastfeeding
If you are breastfeeding your child and are concerned that you are not eating enough fish either because of personal diet preference or because of the risk of ingesting too much mercury, DHA supplements just might be your answer.
Scientists have studied DHA supplementation of mothers of premature babies born at 29 weeks of gestation or younger to see the amount of DHA in breastmilk in mothers. In a study, they provided DHA supplements to one group for up to 36 weeks after the birth and the other control group of mothers did not receive DHA supplements to their diet. Results show that when a mother of a preemie baby adds DHA supplements to their diet, her levels of DHA increased 12-fold and about 7 times more DHA is passed on to the baby versus the control group of mothers who did not receive any DHA supplements.[xix]
Natalie Bourré is a Ddrops Guest Blogger. She is a mom of 4 young children, health writer and social media consultant who is passionate about promoting good health for the entire family. She is keen to share scientific information about vitamin D in an easy to understand fashion. She also truly listens to people’s input and as such, she welcomes you to connect, discuss and share your questions and feedback with her on our social media accounts.
[i] Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Dietary Fatty Acids. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. September 2007; 107: 1599-1611.
[ii] University of Maryland Medical Center. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 03/23/2015 . http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/docosahexaenoic-acid-dha
[iii] University of Maryland Medical Center. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 03/23/2015 . http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/docosahexaenoic-acid-dha
[iv] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Giving DHA supplements to breastfeeding mothers.” ScienceDaily, 1 May 2010. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100501013409.htm
[v] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA and EPA issue final fish consumption advice. May 31 2017. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm537362.htm
[vi] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA and EPA issue final fish consumption advice. May 31 2017. https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm537362.htm
[vii] Health Canada. Mercury in Fish. 02/3/2017. https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/food-safety/chemical-contaminants/environmental-contaminants/mercury/mercury-fish.html
[viii] Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Dietary Fatty Acids. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. September 2007; 107: 1599-1611.
[ix] Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Dietary Fatty Acids. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. September 2007; 107: 1599-1611.
[x] James A Greenberg, Stacey J Bell, Wendy Van Ausdal. Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Fall; 1(4): 162-169. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2621042/
[xi] The Medical Biochemistry Page. Omega Fatty Acids. August 13 2017. https://themedicalbiochemistrypage.org/omegafats.php
[xii] Hee-Yong Kim. Novel Metabolism of Docosahexaenoic Acid in Neural Cells. The Journal of Biological Chemistry. June 29 2007. 18661-18665. http://www.jbc.org/content/282/26/18661.full
[xiii] M. Pcq, P. Chen, M. Perez. et al. DHA Metabolism : Targeting the Brain and Lipoxygenation. Mol Neurobiol. 2010 Aug; 42(1): 48–51. Published online 2010 Apr 28. doi: 10.1007/s12035-010-8131-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894371/
[xiv] University of Maryland Medical Center. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). 03/23/2015 . http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/docosahexaenoic-acid-dha
[xv] Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: An Essential Contribution. 2017. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/omega-3-fats/
[xvi] Horrocks LA1, Yeo YK. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacol Res. 1999 Sep;40(3):211-25.
[xvii] WebMD. DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). 2005-2017. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-864-dha%20docosahexaenoic%20acid.aspx?activeingredientid=864
[xviii] Horrocks LA1, Yeo YK. Health benefits of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Pharmacol Res. 1999 Sep;40(3):211-25.
[xix] American Academy of Pediatrics. “Giving DHA supplements to breastfeeding mothers.” ScienceDaily, 1 May 2010. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/05/100501013409.htm