If you’re nursing, you’ve probably heard that breast milk is the “perfect food.” While that is generally true, the nutritional content of breast milk is greatly influenced by your diet. One essential nutrient for your breastfeeding baby is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Studies show that DHA can benefit your baby’s brain and eye health. This article answers the top 6 questions about DHA and breastfeeding.
1. If breastmilk is the “perfect food” for my baby, why doesn’t it contain enough DHA?
DHA is an essential omega-3 fatty acid. “Essential” means that your body can’t produce it, so you must consume it through your diet and/or supplements. The amount of DHA in your breast milk depends on the amount of DHA you get from food or supplements.
One of the best food sources of DHA is fatty fish. However, many women don’t eat seafood on a regular basis. Most health experts recommend a daily supplement containing DHA while breastfeeding to ensure healthy DHA levels in breast milk.
2. How are DHA and breastfeeding related, and why is it helpful?
DHA is a part of every single cell in the human body. In Expect the Best by Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, she explains that DHA is also the main fat in the brain. In fact, your baby’s brain accumulates DHA rapidly from the last trimester of pregnancy up until 2 years of age. DHA is especially vital to help support healthy brain and eye development in infants.
Studies have shown that breastfed infants with higher blood levels of DHA exhibit better visual acuity. DHA supplementation during breastfeeding may also support healthy cognitive function and attention span in children.
3. What about EPA? Don’t I need that too?
During infant development, DHA and breastfeeding get all the attention. This is due to its connection to brain, vision, and nervous system development. But eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is another essential omega-3 fatty acid. EPA is also part of cell membranes and plays an important role in keeping your cells healthy.
Most fish oil supplements that contain DHA also contain a small amount of EPA. However, DHA derived from algae typically does not. You can also get EPA through your diet from seafood. If you don’t eat fish regularly, you may consider taking fish oil with both DHA and EPA while breastfeeding.
4. Can I get all the DHA I need from fish?
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that pregnant and lactating women consume at least 8-12 ounces of low-mercury seafood per week. Most women fall short of this goal, consuming an average of 5 ounces of seafood per week.
Adding fish to your diet is a great way to increase your DHA intake, but it’s important to keep tabs on the mercury content of the seafood you choose. Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, certain types of tuna, trout, and mackerel are great low-mercury options. Bigger, predatory fish are typically higher in mercury – avoid swordfish, shark, tilefish, king mackerel, and bigeye tuna.
Don’t worry – you don’t have to memorize every species of fish. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a helpful guide to ensure you make safe seafood decisions during pregnancy and beyond.
5. Can I get DHA from other foods like walnuts?
Although your body can convert alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) found in foods such as walnuts, flax seeds, soybean oil, and canola oil, to DHA and EPA, the conversion rate is estimated to be less than 15%. Foods rich in ALA are healthful, but, these foods are not a direct substitute if you’re looking for DHA. Women who are following a plant-based eating plan may consider DHA supplements that come from vegan sources such as algae oils.
6. What should I look for in a DHA and breastfeeding supplement?
It can be busy with an infant in the house. Despite your best intentions, it may be hard to provide enough DHA for you and your baby through food alone. It’s an important nutrient, and you’ll want to be sure you’re getting enough to support healthy DHA levels in your breastmilk.
If you decide to take a breastfeeding supplement, be sure to choose one that has been independently tested and certified. This type of certification guarantees content accuracy, purity, and freedom from contaminants. Organizations such as NSF® International or USP provide third-party testing and certification for dietary supplements. Plus, the International Fish Oil Standards (IFOS) program offers lot-specific fish oil test results for several omega-3 fatty acid products on the market to further guarantee a pure, high-quality fish oil.
It can be difficult to get enough DHA from food alone. Most experts recommend that breastfeeding moms consume DHA every day. If you aren’t eating 8-12 ounces of fatty fish each week, consider adding a high-quality lactation supplement with DHA to your daily routine.