If you are breastfeeding, it is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet in order to support the healthy development of your baby. This includes early brain development which occurs within the first few years of life and is influenced by a child’s nutrition. This means that it is important that a child receives all the essential nutrients it needs through a mother’s breast milk.1
One nutrient that plays a critical role in brain development is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). DHA is an omega-three fatty acid that is essential in supporting both maternal and infant health. It is essential for the growth and brain development of infants and is naturally found in the breast milk of mothers who eat DHA-rich foods such as fatty fish.1
This article will tell you everything you need to know about DHA and its effect on brain development in infants as well as the different DHA-rich foods that can be obtained through your diet during breastfeeding.
What is DHA?
There are three main types of omega 3 fatty acids and these are:
- Alpha-linolenic acid (APA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that play a role in many important functions in your body. Omega 3 fatty acids help all cells in your body but are concentrated in high levels in cells in your eyes and brain. As well as this, studies show that omega-3 fatty acids can lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, blood clots, cancer, Alzheimer's disease and age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained from your diet. Both EPA and DHA are a form of marine omega-3 as they are found in fish, whereas ALA is found in plants. Your body is able to convert the APA you get from food into EPA and DHA; however, it is only a small amount. Therefore, like APA, you must also obtain EPA and DHA from dietary sources.
Benefits of DHA during breastfeeding
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids play a significant role in eye and brain development during both pregnancy and infancy. Both EPA and DHA play an essential role in foetal development and healthy ageing. DHA is especially important in the development of the foetal brain and retina. During pregnancy, the placenta transfers essential nutrients, such as DHA, from the mother to the foetus. Therefore, it is important that the mother has adequate nutrition and DHA levels. One study found that children whose mothers had taken DHA supplementation during pregnancy had better problem-solving skills at 9 months old compared to children whose mothers had not taken DHA supplementation.1
Promotion of healthy vision, cognitive development and nervous system
The benefits of DHA do not stop after pregnancy as they are also important for infant health after birth. It is important for breastfeeding mothers to obtain DHA through their diet for an infant's normal development. This includes eye health, brain health, mental health and behaviour development. Research shows that the brain accumulates DHA during the brain growth spurt, which is within the first two years of life and the high levels of DHA in the brain are maintained throughout life. This means that the nutrition of your child during their first two years of life has a significant effect on their health and brain development and missing out on certain nutrients has lifelong consequences.1
The brain development that occurs during the first two years of a child’s life includes memory, attention, processing, and problem-solving. As the brain grows very rapidly, infants require high amounts of DHA to form essential cell membrane structures in their eyes and brain. Inadequate nutrition during this time can have negative effects. In fact, research shows that DHA deficiency in mothers during pregnancy and breastfeeding is associated with an increased risk of poor vision and neural development in the child.1
Potential long term benefits for the child
Multiple studies have found that high levels of DHA obtained during pregnancy and breastfeeding have various long-term benefits for children. One study found that high levels of maternal and foetal DHA had a positive effect on general health well into early and mid-childhood. This included both eye and brain health. As well as this, high DHA levels were associated with lower body mass index (BMI) scores, leptin levels, and waist circumference.2
DHA Rich foods for breastfeeding mothers
DHA is not naturally produced in our body so it must be obtained from our diet or from DHA supplements. There are three main ways to obtain DHA while breastfeeding. This includes fatty fish and seafood, plant-based sources and DHA-fortified foods and supplements.1
Fatty fish and seafood
If you are breastfeeding, the best source of DHA is through your diet, specifically fatty fish such as salmon and sardines as they contain the highest sources of essential fatty acids. By eating fish 2-3 times a week, you can easily increase your DHA levels and benefit both your own health and your baby’s health.
Fatty fish, also known as oily fish, is low in both calories and saturated fat and high in protein, omega 3 and vitamin D. This makes it a great source of nutrition for a mother and a developing baby. Fatty fish include salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines.
However, fish that contain high levels of mercury should be avoided by pregnant and breastfeeding people assigned female at birth (AFAB). Fish high in mercury include swordfish, sharks, barramundi and king mackerel.
Plant based sources
Although fish is one of the highest sources of DHA, you can also obtain DHA through plant-based sources. This is useful if you are vegetarian or vegan and do not want to consume fish. Plant-based sources of DHA include:
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Brussel sprouts
- Plant oils
- Flaxseed oil
DHA fortified foods and supplements
DHA-fortified foods and supplements are also alternative sources of DHA.
DHA-fortified foods include certain brands of milk and eggs. If you cannot breastfeed or are struggling to breastfeed, DHA-fortified infant formula is also available. Many brands are now fortified with DHA and are set at certain levels to meet the nutritional needs of infants.
If breastfeeding, you can also take DHA supplements to boost your DHA levels and ensure you are getting the amount required to meet your baby’s needs. The recommended daily intake of DHA is 200mg. DHA supplements include fish oil supplements or plant-based supplements such as algal oil.3
Other nutrients essential for brain development
As well as DHA, there are also other nutrients that are essential for an infant's brain development, especially in the first two years of life. These nutrients can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, lean meat, whole grains, nuts, and beans.4
These nutrients include:
- Omega 3 fatty acids (EPA)
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Can DHA supplements replace DHA-rich foods?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet that consists of foods rich in omega-three fatty acids is more beneficial than taking DHA supplements. In fact, research shows that eating fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids provides more health benefits than taking supplements does.
However, if certain foods are not an option for you or you cannot meet your daily requirement of DHA, then DHA supplements are a great alternative.
How much DHA is recommended during breastfeeding?
It is recommended for breastfeeding women to consume 200 mg of DHA per day.5
Are there any side effects of consuming too much DHA?
Although eating DHA-rich foods has tremendous health benefits, consuming too much DHA has a few side effects.
Side effects include:
- Mercury poisoning - eating too much fish that is high in mercury can cause toxins to build up in your body, which can affect the development of the brain and nervous system of young children
- Increases the risk of prostate cancer
- Digestive issues - diarrhoea, indigestion
In summary, DHA is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that plays an important role in visual and cognitive development in infancy. As DHA is not naturally produced in our body, breast milk is a DHA source for babies. There are different ways of obtaining DHA through your diet, including fish and seafood, plant-based sources and DHA supplements. Fatty fish such as salmon and sardines are the highest sources of DHA as they contain the highest sources of essential fatty acids. However, you can also obtain DHA through plant-based sources such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and algae. It is important to maintain healthy levels of DHA as research shows that DHA deficiency in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers is linked with an increased risk of poor vision and brain development in infants. Other nutrients that play a role in brain development include calcium, choline, vitamin D, iodine and iron, which can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, nuts, and dairy products.
- Lauritzen L, Brambilla P, Mazzocchi A, Harsløf LBS, Ciappolino V, Agostoni C. Dha effects in brain development and function. Nutrients [Internet]. 2016 Jan 4 [cited 2023 Jul 29];8(1):6. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728620/
- Mun JG, Legette LL, Ikonte CJ, Mitmesser SH. Choline and dha in maternal and infant nutrition: synergistic implications in brain and eye health. Nutrients [Internet]. 2019 May 21 [cited 2023 Jul 29];11(5):1125. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6566660/
- Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids epa and dha: health benefits throughout life1. Adv Nutr [Internet]. 2012 Jan 5 [cited 2023 Jul 29];3(1):1–7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262608/
- Georgieff MK, Ramel SE, Cusick SE. Nutritional influences on brain development. Acta Paediatr [Internet]. 2018 Aug [cited 2023 Jul 29];107(8):1310–21. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6045434/
- Aumeistere L, Ciproviča I, Zavadska D, Volkovs V. Fish intake reflects on DHA level in breast milk among lactating women in Latvia. International Breastfeeding Journal [Internet]. 2018 Jul 20 [cited 2023 Jul 29];13(1):33. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s13006-018-0175-8