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 of the most important nutrients for a new baby is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Studies show that DHA can benefit your baby’s brain and eye health. In this article, we answer 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 since your body can’t produce it, you must consume it through your diet and/or supplements. You can get DHA from fatty fish, which is one of the best food sources of DHA, but the fact is, most pregnant and lactating women don’t even come close to consuming the recommended amount of seafood to supply the DHA that you and your baby need.
The amount of DHA in your breast milk depends on the amount of DHA you get in your diet or through supplements. Most health experts recommend a daily supplement containing DHA while breastfeeding. The DHA supplied to the baby through your breastmilk increases the baby’s blood levels of DHA better than directly giving your baby a DHA supplement.
2. How are DHA and breastfeeding related, and why is it helpful?
In Expect the Best by Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, she explains that DHA is the main fat in the brain. In fact, it is a part of every single cell in your child’s brain. Infancy is such an important time for DHA to be present in the diet, especially since the brain accumulates DHA rapidly from the last trimester of pregnancy up until 2 years of age. DHA accumulates in the membranes of the retina and neural tissue too and is essential for proper development of the infant’s nervous system.
Studies have shown that breastfed infants with higher blood levels of DHA exhibit better visual acuity. DHA supplementation during breastfeeding for the first 4 months of infancy can also benefit sustained attention, which is the ability to concentrate on an activity until the activity is completed. In this study, researchers examined sustained attention when these same infants reached 5 years old.
3. What about EPA? Don’t I need that too?
Eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, is another essential omega-3 fatty acid. EPA is also part of cell membranes and is important for its anti-inflammatory properties in the body.
During infant development, DHA and breastfeeding get all the attention. This is due to its connection to the brain, vision, and nervous system development.
Most fish oil supplements that contain DHA also contain a small amount of EPA. However, algal sources of DHA (meaning DHA derived from algae) typically do not.
You can get EPA from seafood. If you’re interested, ask your healthcare professional about supplementing with additional EPA. Or, consider taking fish oil with both DHA and EPA while breastfeeding.
4. Can I get all the DHA I need from fish?
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that pregnant and lactating women consume at least 8 and up to 12 ounces of seafood per week. Sadly, we fall well below this goal, consuming an average of just 3 to 4 ounces of seafood per week.
Fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, trout, and mackerel are rich sources of DHA. So, choose these types of fish to get the most DHA from your diet.
Mercury, which is present in some seafood, accumulates in your body and may pose a risk to an infant’s developing nervous system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that women of childbearing age and young children avoid eating fish with higher levels of mercury. These types of fish include swordfish, shark, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel, orange roughy, marlin, and bigeye tuna. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a great resource to help you choose seafood based on sustainability and contaminants and mercury that may be present.
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 and canola oil, to DHA and EPA, the conversion rate is estimated to be less than 15%. Foods rich in ALA are healthful. If you’re looking for DHA, however, these foods are not a substitute.
Women who are following a vegetarian eating plan can 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 supply your baby through breastmilk.
If you decide to choose 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.
Most experts recommend that breastfeeding moms consume DHA every day. This Very Well article notes that getting enough DHA from food during your busy days as a breastfeeding mother may not be realistic for most women. If you aren’t eating 8-12 ounces of fatty fish each week, choose a lactation supplement with DHA.
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