How to Maximize Your Breast Milk’s Brain-Boosting Power

Maximize your breast milk’s brain-boosting power

By Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD

Many moms go to great lengths to provide breast milk for their babies.  This is true whether they breastfeed, exclusively pump or utilize a combination of pumping and nursing.  Everyone knows that breast milk has numerous health benefits, but few moms know that they can actually enhance the brain-boosting power of their breast milk.

Here’s the what, why and how of making sure you’re doing all you can do give your baby a brainier start.

What is this brain-building nutrient (DHA)?
You’ve probably heard of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), omega-3 fatty acids important for brain health. These fatty acids are mainly found in marine sources (fatty fish) such as salmon, tuna, herring and trout.  Another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), comes from plant sources such as flax, walnuts and canola oil. 

Not all omega-3 fatty acids are created equal.  In fact, the health benefits listed below come primarily from DHA found from marine sources.  So you can eat all the plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids that you like but if you consume little or no fish, you’re milk is falling short on DHA.  Studies show that the amount of DHA in mom’s diet is directly related to the levels found in her breast milk.

Why does your baby need DHA?
The brain is one of the fattiest organs – almost 60 percent fat!  During baby’s rapid development, the central nervous system needs higher levels of DHA in utero, all the way through the first 2 years of life.  DHA plays a key role in forming synapses in the brain that will enhance learning, memory, vision, attention and language development as a child grows.

In The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet, author Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD says that the DHA in breast milk has decreased significantly in the last decade.  She also says that adequate DHA in pregnancy and postpartum may also lower rates of postpartum depression and attention deficit disorder in children, and improve baby’s sleep patterns, decrease the risk of asthma and reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. 

How can you get enough DHA?
To avoid the risk of methyl-mercury, the FDA recommends an upper limit of 12 ounces of low mercury fish for high risk populations including shrimp, salmon, catfish and canned light tuna (no more than 6 ounces of canned albacore tuna) weekly with the avoidance of higher-mercury fish including swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel. Many pregnant and lactating women may avoid fish all together which isn’t necessary.
In order to get enough DHA in your diet, the not-for-profit National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition encourage pregnant and lactating women to:
–Consume 12 ounces (2-3 meals) of low-mercury fish per week to get adequate DHA:
–Include fatty fish that are highest in DHA at least once week — salmon, trout and tuna.  See handout for more fish ideas.
–Try shrimp, canned light tuna (no more than 6 ounces canned albacore), cod and scallops to help round out your 12 ounces per week.

According to the DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute, lactating women only get about 80mg of DHA, which isn’t even half of what international groups recommend (the U.S. has no recommendations for DHA).  The International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) recommends pregnant and lactating get at least 200mg DHA daily.  If you can’t eat fish, or your intake is sporadic, consider a fish oil supplement that contains at least 200mg of DHA (check label for specific amounts)  
While doing so many things to help our children develop intellectually, we often forget about the role of nutrition.  Growing brains need the right fuel and in this case it’s DHA.     
Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD is the creator of, a blog aimed to help moms raise healthy, happy and confident eaters.


DHA/EPA Omega-3 Institute

Consensus Statement: dietary fat intake for pregnant and lactating women. British Journal of Nutrition (2007).

The Ultimate Omegat-3 Diet: Maximize the Power of Omega-3s to Supercharge Your Health, Battle Inflammation, and Keep Your Mind Sharp by Evelyn Tribole, MS, RD

Key words:
Diet and breastfeeding
DHA pregnancy

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