Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Their Importance In Breastfeeding

  • Ayesha JamilBachelors of Biomedical Sciences with Honors - University of Nottingham, Malaysia

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As a new or expectant mother, almost everyone hears about the significance of essential nutrients during this critical stage of a baby's development. But why are they so important for breastfeeding mothers and their babies? How can you make sure you are getting enough of these important nutrients for a healthy breastfeeding routine?

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that the human body cannot produce by itself, which is why it is very important to get them from the food we eat. The benefits of these acids are far more than just being a source of healthy fats for a person. These essential nutrients play an important role in promoting brain development in infants, which is especially crucial during the early stages of life for a baby.1

Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked with reducing inflammation and supporting cardiovascular health, both for the mother and the baby.

Introduction

During lactation, the mother's body dedicates its attention to nutrient transfers from their diet to breast milk including Omega 3 fatty acids. This ensures that the baby stays healthy. This is of the utmost importance. On the other hand, depending on the mother's diet, breast milk may have different amounts of omega-3 fats. Therefore, it is important that lactating mothers are provided with sufficient quantities of Omega-3 acids to assist the growth and development of their babies.2

Omega-3 fatty acids: types and sources

There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as food sources where they can be found. The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).3 In general, each type has a different beneficial effect on overall health, particularly during breastfeeding.3

ALA is primarily made up of plant-based foods and may be converted to EPA and DHA by the human body, but this conversion is restricted.3 Consequently, the direct source of EPA and DHA must be taken into account by those who follow a plant-based diet because they will need to make sure they can get enough.3

EPA and DHA are key elements for achieving a well-rounded diet in breastfed mothers and they predominantly come from fat fish.4 Fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and trout are fatty fish that have higher levels of EPA and DHA.4 The Omega 3 fatty acids, which are readily absorbed by the body due to their marine origin, have been associated with a wide range of health benefits, particularly brain development and cardiovascular disease.4

Omega-3 fatty acids benefits for breastfeeding mothers

Role in maternal health

Reduced postpartum depression risk

Some emotional or hormonal changes, often referred to as "baby blues," can happen during the postpartum period. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, have been linked to improved mood and can help reduce the risk of postpartum depression.5

Anti-inflammatory

Omega-3 fatty acids have natural anti-inflammatory properties that can be beneficial for breastfeeding mothers, especially those experiencing joint pain or inflammation. Carrying a baby can put a lot of pressure on joints, so incorporating omega-3-rich foods or supplements into your diet can provide some relief and support.6

Heart health benefits

Breastfeeding can have a beneficial effect on the mother's cardiovascular health, and omega-3 oils play an important role in this. Reducing blood pressure and lowering your risk of heart disease is possible with omega-3 fatty acids. In support of heart health, nursing mothers will be able to cope better with the physical demands of caring for their infants.7

Impact on breast milk composition

Breast milk is a special and complex fluid produced just for an infant's dietary needs. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential in determining its makeup. The majority of breast milk is made up of DHA.8 DHA builds up in the developing baby's brain and eyes during pregnancy, which is essential for the baby's mind and vision to develop correctly.8 DHA is transferred from the breast milk to the infant once breastfeeding starts. This further helps the infant's continued growth and cognitive development. It also improves a child's nutrition by increasing the supply of breast milk.8

Omega-3 fatty acids benefits for breastfed babies

Brain and cognitive development

From an early age, most importantly the first two years of life, the brain grows quickly. DHA, a crucial amino acid for the synthesis of omega-3 fatty acids and a key player in neural development, is an essential structural component of brain tissue.9 A sufficient DHA intake through breast milk is linked to enhanced brain and visual development in children. A wide range of mental processes, such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and language abilities, serve as indicators of cognitive functions.9

According to studies, higher levels of DHA in breast milk make infants more likely to develop better mental capabilities as they get older. These kids can exhibit better problem-solving abilities, language development, and attention span than those who consume little DHA.9 In both infants and adults, omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to emotional health. Adequate DHA intake may show improved emotional control and decreased risk of behavioural issues in breastfed infants.9 

Visual development

The importance of DHA lies in its development as a visual system. The light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye is a major component of the retina.10 Development of the eye and its accompanying structures is supported by a sufficient intake of DHA from breast milk.10 This contributes to healthy vision, giving the child a basis for learning how to perceive and process visual information effectively.10 A complex link between the eye and the brain is relied upon for the visual system. DHA contributes to the formation of neural pathways that are involved in visual processing, helping establish a strong connection between our eye and brain.10 This correlation is of essential importance for visual stimulation interpretation and behavioural responses in the brain.10

Immune system support

Breast milk plays an important role in strengthening the immune system in children to help them fight off infections and illnesses by passing on passive immunity from mother to child.9 Omega-3 fatty acids possess anti-inflammatory properties that can support the infant's developing immune system, helping to protect against common infections and allergies by regulating the immune response.9 This is important in families with a history of allergies, such as asthma. For example, the effects of Omega 3 fatty acids on immune system function in breast milk may extend to adulthood.9 This indicates that by reducing the risk for serious inflammatory conditions and autonomic diseases, infants who are given appropriate amounts of DHA by breastfeeding may benefit from the long-term effects. Especially, if the weaning is put off longer than just one year after birth as the first two years are the most important.9

Omega-3 supplementation during breastfeeding

Recommended dosages for breastfeeding mothers

DHA and EPA intake

The combination of the intake of DHA and EPA has been traditionally advised to be 200 to 300 mg per day in lactating mothers.1 This dose is intended to ensure a sufficient supply of these vital fatty acids in breast milk, which promotes the overall growth and development of a child.1

ALA intake 

For vegetarians and vegans relying on plant-based sources, the recommended daily intake of ALA is approximately 1.3 grams for adult females.1 ALA can be transformed into DHA or EPA in the body, but this conversion is limited. For individuals following a plant-based diet, the addition of other sources of DHA by fortifying foods or supplements may provide benefits.1

Algal oil supplements

Generally, a daily dosage between 200 and 300 milligrams of DHA is recommended in individuals who choose to supplement their diet with algae oil.1 Algal oil is an ideal supplement as it is a simple way to ensure you attain an adequate DHA intake. This is particularly important for people who don’t eat fish.1

Fish oil supplements

In choosing to use fish oil supplements as your source of Omega 3s, aim for a range of approximately 200 to 300 mg combined DHA and EPA per day.1 Since some supplements may have different concentration levels, it is always advisable to check product labels for specific doses.1

Balanced approach

Excess of everything is bad, therefore, it is necessary to keep in check the intake of Omega-3. A high dose of Omega 3 Fatty Acids may result in possible side effects or interactions with medicines, so avoiding excessive supplementation is best.1 If you have specific needs and health status, it is best to talk to your doctor before determining an appropriate dose.1

Safety and precautions

When adding an omega 3 to your diet, you need to take care of safety and precautionary measures as they offer a wide range of beneficial effects on lactation mothers and their infants.1

Quality of supplements

Trustworthy brands that follow high-quality standards should be selected when choosing Omega 3 supplements. Choose products that have been tested by third-party organisations for purity and potency. This ensures that you get a stable and harmless supplement.1

Allergies

Omega-3 supplements are normally well-tolerated by most people, but people with fish or seafood allergies should be careful. For those who are known to have fish allergy, supplementation with fish oil might not be appropriate, so in these cases, algal oil supplements provide a vegan-friendly and allergen-free alternative so that the person does not miss out on the benefits of omega-3.1

Medication interactions

It is always important to check with your doctor if you are on any medicines or have any underlying medical condition before starting an Omega-3 supplement. This is to avoid potential side effects. For example, omega-3 fatty acids may interact with certain medicines such as blood thinners.1

Mercury and contaminants

Careful attention should be paid to mercury concentrations in certain fish species for breastfeeding mothers who consume fatty fish regularly. Mercury content tends to be higher in large predatory fish such as sharks, swordfish, and king mackerel. To reduce the risk of exposure to environmental contaminants, pick fish with lower mercury levels and take a variety of fish.10

Incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into the breastfeeding diet

So what are some practical ways of providing these important nutrients in our everyday diet? Now that we have looked at different aspects of omega-3 Fatty Acids and their importance in breastfeeding, we can look at how to incorporate them into your diet.3

Fatty fish

One of the easiest ways to obtain EPA and DHA is to add fish fat to your diet. A good source of Omega 3 is salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout, and herring. To take full advantage of this benefit, it is recommended to eat these fish at least twice a week.3

Plant-based sources

For vegetarians and vegans, incorporating plant-based sources of omega-3s is a must. Alkaloid ALA, which is a precursor of EPA and DHA, is also present in foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts. While conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA is limited, it can still make an impact on your omega-3 intake by eating these foods.3

Fortified foods

Verify that certain foods, for example, milk and yoghurt, have an additive of omega-3 fatty acids. To provide you with another convenient way of increasing your intake, some brands offer products containing DHA added.3

Snack on nuts and seeds

Add nuts and seeds rich in Omega 3 to your snacks and meals. You can increase your intake of Omega 3 easily and in delicious ways, such as snacking on a handful of walnuts or adding Chia seed to yoghurt or oats.3

DHA-fortified supplements

Consider a DHA fatty acid supplement when it is difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of omega-3-rich food and if you have specific dietary restrictions. Algal supplements offer a vegan-friendly option, whilst fish oil supplements are the direct source of EPA and DHA.3

Summary

To support breastfeeding mothers and their children, Omega 3 fatty acids have a significant role in this. The essential fats that contain EPA, DHA, and ALA offer a variety of benefits for the mother's health in terms of preventing birth defects, as well as contributing to optimum child development through its brain, vision, and immunity systems. You will be able to enhance your intake of these important nutrients easily through the addition of a nutritious diet full of omega-3 foods.

An excellent source of EPA or DHA directly is fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. ALA, which may be converted into EPA and DHA in a limited quantity, is present in plant-based sources such as coconut oil, chia seed, or walnuts for vegetarians and vegans. The health of pregnant women is supported by Omega 3 fats, including the regulation of postmenopausal mood, heart function, and inflammation.

These nutrients pass into breast milk from the mother's diet, providing essential support for baby development during breastfeeding. Omega 3 is particularly beneficial for the brain and cognitive development, visual development, and immune system support in children. Ensure the health of you and your child by consuming a variety of foods with high levels of Omega 3, which will have positive impacts on both yourself and your children's health. Always seek the advice of healthcare professionals who will provide you with a safe and satisfying breastfeeding experience.

References

  1. Krupa K, Fritz K, Parmar M. Omega-3 fatty acids. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 [cited 2023 Jul 28]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK564314/
  2. Section on Breastfeeding. Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics [Internet]. 2012 Mar;129(3):e827-841. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22371471/
  3. Office of dietary supplements - omega-3 fatty acids [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 28]. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
  4. 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 28];3(1):1–7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262608/
  5. Appleton KM, Rogers PJ, Ness AR. Updated systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids on depressed mood. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Mar;91(3):757–70.  Available from: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.28313 
  6. Giacobbe J, Benoiton B, Zunszain P, Pariante CM, Borsini A. The anti-inflammatory role of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids metabolites in pre-clinical models of psychiatric, neurodegenerative, and neurological disorders. Front Psychiatry [Internet]. 2020 Feb 28 [cited 2023 Jul 28];11:122. Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00122/full
  7. Abdelhamid AS, Brown TJ, Brainard JS, Biswas P, Thorpe GC, Moore HJ, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev [Internet]. 2020 Feb 29;3(3):CD003177. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32114706/
  8. Marine oils. In: Drugs and Lactation Database (LactMed®) [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; 2006 [cited 2023 Jul 28]. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK501898/
  9. Coletta JM, Bell SJ, Roman AS. Omega-3 fatty acids and pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol [Internet]. 2010 [cited 2023 Jul 28];3(4):163–71. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3046737/
  10. Oken E, Bellinger DC. Fish consumption, methylmercury, and child neurodevelopment. Curr Opin Pediatr [Internet]. 2008 Apr [cited 2023 Jul 28];20(2):178–83. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2581505/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Ayesha Jamil

Bachelors of Biomedical Sciences with Honors - University of Nottingham, Malaysia

Ayesha is a passionate graduate who is highly motivated to do her best in all that she tries. functioning in a multicultural university society on campus, she has developed many skills including communication, leadership skills, and developed a strong work ethic to name a few while in university.

She was the course representative for all three of her academic years working closely with the teaching and management staff to ensure the needs and voices of her fellow students were heard as well as the implementation of any new protocol for the students that may have been introduced for them.

She has also undertaken many key roles as well as been a part of the volunteering fellows. She has taken another step towards the future by undertaking an internship with Klarity as a writer for medical articles.

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