Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Breastfeeding and DHA

Yesterday, my father-in-law sent me a link to information about lactation and DHA. He's an agricultural economist and directs an agricultural research centre in Canada. He was at a workshop on BioActive Fatty Acids with keynote speaker Dr. Bruce Holub, Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph. My father-in-law wrote, "The bottom line is if you are nursing babies you need to take DHA!"

An excerpt from the lactation page on Dr. Holub's website:
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid, 22:6n-3) is a physiologically-essential essential nutrient and a key omega-3 fatty acid needed in high levels in the brain and retina (eye) for optimal neuronal functioning (learning ability, memory) and visual acuity, respectively.

For breast-fed infants, their only source of nutrition (incl. DHA) for growth and development is their mother's milk. The amount of DHA in the diet is a major factor determining how much DHA appears in breast milk for the baby to consume for health. Since fish is by far the predominant food source of dietary DHA, and since fish is consumed at a very low rate (approximately one serving every 10 days), the level of DHA in North American breast milk is very low. For example, Health Canada has reported that DHA represents an average of only 0.14% of the total fat in breast milk. This low level reflects the low dietary intake of DHA during lactation of approximately only 80 mg/day.
The research suggests that lactating women with a low dietary intake of fish should supplement with fish oil. I took fish oil during both pregnancies but stopped once my babies were born. This is good motivation to do keep up the habit!


  1. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding moms receive supplimental DHA via fish oil or capsules. As an LC, I echo this recommendation. Plus, it's pretty easy to get extra DHA in your diet. Just eat more fish!

  2. There's also some evidence that supplementing with DHA while nursing reduces the incidence of ADD/ADHD. Needless to say that since my mother, sister and husband all have mild ADD I've been taking DHA since I got pregnant. It's not so bad now but when I was pregnant the smell killed me.

    Oh, and for anyone out there who is vegetarian (like me) or vegan, there are algae based DHA supplements so you don't have to take fish oil.

  3. For vegetarians like me (and doulas, LCs, etc. working with us): there are cruelty-free, plant-based--algae-based, actually--sources of DHA, too.

  4. I'm not a fan of fish oil. I've never taken it. I quick google search revealed this info:

    I prefer nuts, grains, sea vegetables than daily fish oil supplementation.

  5. I was taking a DHA supplement until DS was 9 months old when the Dr told me I was wasting my money...

    ERRRRRRRRR. Dr's don't know everything like they think they do. I wish I'd kept it up

  6. I am glad to see this discussion. My doctor "prescribed" fish oil when I was pregnant with my first, so I never stopped taking it since that time.

    The discussion around our house now revolves around probiotics. I know that breastfed babies get their initial colonization from nursing, but what about supplements for the mama? Can there be deficiencies for either party? I still have lots of questions, like how much yogurt is enough?

  7. "just eat more fish!" and please hold the mercury.

    the safest fish for high omega-3 content and low mercury are wild pacific/alaskan salmon, sardines and anchovies.

  8. Thanks. This is a great article. There are many sources and all natural, organic supplements for vegetarian/vegan DHA. Most are derived from microalgae and sea greens.

    Omega 3s come from many additional sources as well including flax. mustard and hemp seeds, green leafy vegetables, whole grains and spirulina.

    If you use less sunflower, safflower and corn oils and more oils containing alphalinolenic acid such as rapeseed (canola) oil, or soya bean and walnut oils. it will encourage your tissues to make more DHA.

    Be well!
    ~ Terra

  9. Its a bit expensive but Udo's oils are lovely & great for those trying to maintain a vegetarian/vegan diet.

  10. Yes, fat consumption definitely affects the fats in breast milk. This has been confirmed in lots of research.

    This is one of the reasons that the "Ack! all fish is evil for pregnant women!" meme is so dangerous.

    Also, I am happy to see a recommendation for algae derived DHA for vegans or other non fish eaters (although you may want to look into what solvents are used to extract the DHA from the algae).

    Unfortunately, other precursors such as the ones found in Udo's Oil are not easily or adequately converted to DHA in most people.

    Side note, I have met Udo in person more than once, and he eats lots of salmon and fish source omega 3's!

  11. Rixa, do you know how much DHA is recommended for nursing mothers? What kind of fish oil did you take? I'm a nursing mother and saw on the Weston A Price website that cod liver oil is recommended. Any thoughts on that? Thanks, Suzanne

  12. I am a firm believer in Cod Liver Oil. I take it myself and I have given it to my son since he was 6 months old. He is now 20 months old. (We take Nordic Naturals Cod Liver Oil with Vitamin D-3 and high vitamin A). In 20 months, my nursing son has never been sick except for once with a runny nose that only lasted for 2 days. A big difference than what the American Academy of Pediatrics says ("expect your child to be sick 8-10 times within the first 2 years") WHATEVER!!! Of course expect them to be sick when they #1 aren't breastfeeding, #2 Not getting proper nutrition/supplementation of vitamins/minerals, and #3 - being pumped full of toxins, chemicals, and heavy metals (i.e. - vaccines).
    (we are vaccine-free by the way)

  13. If you don't want to eat fish because of Mercury concerns or vegetarian diet you can also take Flax seed oil pills, flax seed meal (bob's red mill makes a great one), or just simply put the flax oil in a smoothie. It is rich with omega 3,6,and 9.
    A great web site to get inexpensive flax oil - vitacost.com usually about half the price in stores. My husband and I live for flax oil (also helps with depression).

  14. If you read the rest of the original article, you'll find that direct consumption of fish, or fish oil, is a much better way of getting enough DHA. From the article:

    "It is noteworthy that ALA, alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3), a commonly consumed omega-3 fatty acid from plant sources (such as canola oil, walnuts, flax, etc) at approximately 1300 mg/day in a North American diet, is very poorly converted to DHA in the human body via metabolism. For example, the low level of DHA in the breast milk of American women was found to be unaltered despite their consumption of 11,000 mg ALA/day over a 4 week period. Thus, the total omega-3 fatty acid intake alone fails to predict the level of DHA in breast milk. The direct consumption of DHA, at relatively low levels, provides a fairly rapid and marked improvement in the DHA level found in breast milk."

    Basically you can eat huge amounts of flaxseed or other things with Omega 3's and still not get enough DHA, while a small amount of fish oil, or increasing your intake of fish, will do the job."


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