As far back as two million years ago, a now extinct species of humans was breastfeeding. Fast forward to more modern times and we find approximately 80% of American babies start out being breastfed. That’s a good thing, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), WHO and UNICEF, all of whom recommend that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.
From there, the AAP advises continued breastfeeding (along with introducing appropriate complementary foods) for a period of one year or longer, with WHO and UNICEF suggesting two years or more.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Dr. Ruth Peterson says “Breastfeeding provides unmatched health benefits for babies and mothers. It is the clinical gold standard for infant feeding and nutrition, with breastmilk uniquely tailored to meet the health needs of a growing baby.”
This is a timely topic as August is National Breastfeeding Month. So, at OmegaQuant, we’re taking the opportunity in this blog (and next week’s too!) to look at the benefits of breastfeeding, the role of omega-3 for breastfeeding moms and identify ways to ensure nursing mothers maintain targeted levels of omega-3, specifically DHA, in their breastmilk. All of this to maximize the benefits that omega-3 when breastfeeding confers for moms and their children.
Why Choose Breastfeeding?
Apparently, there are a lot of reasons why breastfeeding is beneficial and omega-3 fish oil plays a part in those reasons. Let’s take a look.
Many women cite maternal fulfillment as a top reason for choosing to breastfeed, also known as nursing. Breastfeeding importantly creates a special bonding experience between a mother and her child, in part because of the positive hormonal interactions that occur following the intense skin-to-skin contact.
This close contact signals the brain to release oxytocin—known as the “love” or “cuddle” hormone—resulting in warm feelings of love and well-being. Another hormone released during nursing is prolactin, which provides a pleasant, calming and nurturing sensation, and working in concert with oxytocin, increases deep feelings of attachment and bursts of contentment.
Postpartum depression (PPD) occurs in about 1 in 9 women within the first year after giving birth. One study showed that women who had a low Omega-3 Index had higher depression scores. In other words, a woman’s omega-3 level during pregnancy could be a risk factor for PPD.
For some women, breastfeeding can help reduce PPD because of the unique emotional experience and joy it brings them. (For others, nursing may increase PPD symptoms, and being mindful of how nursing is impacting a woman’s emotions is a necessary discussion for moms to have with their doctors or other healthcare practitioners.)
Beyond the emotional and psychological benefits of breastfeeding, nursing provides a wide range of important health benefits for both the mother and the child. Studies have shown that breastfed infants have reduced risks of asthma, allergies, obesity, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and more.
It’s not just the baby who benefits from breastfeeding. Other studies show breastfeeding can also help lower a mother’s risk for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, as well as ovarian and breast cancer.
Breastfeeding also burns calories, which may aid new moms in taking off some of the pounds they put on during pregnancy. But burning 300-500 calories a day from nursing is by no means a weight loss slam dunk. Several other factors, including stress, sleep, exercise, your body type, your eating habits and even the number of past pregnancies also factor into the equation.
What’s the Relationship Between Omega-3 Fish Oil & Breastfeeding?
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an important omega-3 fatty acid that is most abundant in the brain and retina of the eye. The right amount of DHA in your breastmilk is also something you want to ensure while you’re nursing.
It’s considered especially vital during the first two years of a child’s development especially in the areas of brain and eye health. DHA is present in a woman’s breastmilk and breastfeeding transfers key nutrients such as DHA to the baby. Fortunately, there are ways to monitor the level of DHA in a woman’s breast milk, and there are ways to increase your DHA to what would be considered adequate levels.
Although there is no identified amount for optimal benefits, there are ways to increase your omega-3 DHA levels in breast milk. We’ll go into more detail on this later in this blog.
But first, because we know that not all women choose, or are able, to breastfeed, it’s important to also know there are other ways to help ensure that both mom and baby reach the right levels of omega-3 DHA to reap those key benefits needed during the first few years of a baby’s development.
Before we talk about how much omega-3 DHA you need, and how to find out how to get there, let’s first look at what some of the studies say for mothers and their infants.
Research Shows Higher Breast Milk DHA Levels are Beneficial for Mom and for Baby
There are literally thousands of studies on the role of, and the need for, DHA during pregnancy and after birth. Here are a few.
One study from the Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, discovered that children whose mothers took DHA while breastfeeding performed better on sustained attention tasks at 5 years of age compared to children of mothers who did not.
Yet another study from Baylor found that children whose mothers took DHA while breastfeeding performed better on psychomotor tests at 4 months of age compared to children of mothers who did not.
At the KU Medical Center, University of Kansas, researchers advised that children fed DHA had better scores on rule-learning and inhibition tasks at 3-5 years of age compared to those who did not get DHA-enriched formula.
Researchers from the University of Oslo, Norway, concluded that increased intake of DHA during pregnancy and lactation resulted in better mental processing scores in their offspring at 4 years of age.
A mom’s intake of omega-3 DHA can affect a baby’s brain development up to the age of 2. Making sure her DHA levels stay optimal will ensure that her baby meets proper cognitive and behavioral milestones.
Is Omega-3 Safe for Breastfeeding?
The short answer is yes, however there are choices pregnant and nursing women can make about omega-3 fish oil to further ensure they are looking out for theirs and their baby’s safety.
In general, concern about the safety of omega-3 fish oil revolves around the mercury levels naturally found in fish. Recent research demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the risks of eating fish—a major source of omega-3 EPA and DHA—during pregnancy. The results are reassuring for fish lovers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating 8 to 12 ounces a week of a variety of seafood that’s low in methylmercury while pregnant or nursing a baby.
Consistently safe options like salmon, trout and herring can be eaten 2-3 times per week and are not only low in mercury but also high in omega-3s, which are shown to be especially important for baby’s cognitive development. White or albacore canned tuna is also a good source of DHA but should only be eaten once per week due to a slightly higher mercury content.
While many fish prove to be an excellent source of DHA, the FDA advises women of childbearing age to steer clear of high-mercury species like swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can be detrimental to a baby’s brain development, vision, cognition and motor skills.
The FDA has released a helpful guide to choosing low-mercury fish, but be aware that not all the fish are rich in DHA. A list of fish that is both high in DHA and low in mercury is included in the Prenatal DHA Test report. Check out this sample report.
It’s also smart to remember that as the saying goes, just because a little is good, that doesn’t mean a lot is better. That’s why it’s important to be aware of how much omega-3 EPA and DHA you’re getting—from all sources including conventional food, functional food and dietary supplements. (Also, if you are feeding your baby enriched infant formula, keep that in mind too.)
The FDA advises that omega-3 supplements containing EPA and DHA are safe if doses don’t exceed 3,000 mg per day. However, that doesn’t mean you should be taking 3,000 mg per day. It’s best to talk with your doctor about what amount of omega-3 EPA and DHA is right for you.
How Much Omega-3 DHA Do Nursing Mothers Need?
It depends. But chances are good most women are not getting nearly enough.
The average intake for women in their 20s-30s in the United States is about 55 mg per day. The science tells us that is simply too low.
Current recommendations advise that lactating women consume at least 200 mg of DHA per day. Guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend that pregnant and nursing women consume an average of 300 mg per day or more of DHA, either by eating fish or taking an omega-3 supplement. Other studies have suggested that 600 mg of DHA daily might be an appropriate dose for pregnant and nursing women.
But due to differences in metabolism and a variety of individualized health issues, the right amount of DHA needed to reap the benefits of that nutrient—for you and your baby—can vary between individuals. And because a nursing mother is sharing nutrients, including DHA, with her baby through her breast milk, it’s especially important to make sure she is not short-changing herself on DHA.
While up to 3,000 mg of omega-3 EPA/DHA per day is considered safe, it would be wise for women to have ongoing conversations with their doctor about their nutrient intake to determine the best sources of omega-3 EPA/DHA, whether it’s from diet, dietary supplements, infant formula or a combination of all three.
An important step for women in determining how much omega-3 DHA they need while nursing is to first figure out how much DHA is in their breastmilk. DHA breast milk levels, like blood, go up and down mainly based on how much DHA is consumed in the diet.
OmegaQuant has received broad acceptance in the scientific community for its original Omega-3 Index test, a simple, safe, cost effective at-home test that measures blood levels of omega-3 EPA and DHA. This test is used not only by individuals as a first step in ensuring optimal intakes of omega-3 fatty acids, but it also serves as establishing protocol in research studies where it works to help identify the dose at which benefits for omega-3 fatty acids can be achieved.
Following the success of the Omega-3 Index, OmegaQuant expanded its testing line with two tests specifically designed to help women of childbearing age understand how much omega-3 DHA they need for themselves and their babies. The Prenatal DHA test measures DHA in the blood to let mom know if she is getting enough of this key nutrient for both her and her baby.
The Mother’s Milk DHA test specifically tests DHA levels in a woman’s breastmilk. This simple, affordable, non-invasive test—as easy as dabbing a drop of breastmilk on a piece of filter paper—enables women to see if they’re reaching the recommended DHA breastmilk levels of at least 0.32%. Although scientists have not yet identified an optimal level for DHA in breastmilk, 0.32% is a great place to start.
Results of will arrive approximately 1-2 weeks after the test is sent in. If a woman’s DHA level is in the recommended range (0.32% or above), as long as you maintain the same health status, diet, and/or supplement regimen, then you don’t need to take the test again.
However, if a woman’s breastmilk DHA is low, the good news is it can be corrected by adding more fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna, mussels) or omega-3 EPA and DHA supplements to to their diet. The question is how much?
OmegaQuant has a free online tool for those who have already gotten their Mother’s Milk DHA Test results—the Mother’s Milk DHA Calculator—to help guide them toward increasing their DHA breastmilk levels to meet their individualized goals. The calculator is based on results from a 3-month randomized, placebo-controlled DHA supplementation study in 52 healthy lactating women.
If women maintain a higher DHA intake for at least 2 weeks, they’ll be ready to retest to see if their new plan is working. Before making any major changes to their diet or supplementation routine, women should first consult with their doctor.