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Omega-3 in Breast Milk
Babies must get the omega-3 fatty acid DHA from their milk. They need this omega-3 fatty acid to form brain tissue and nerve cells, and that is just for starters. Babies are not able to convert the omega-3 (LNA) that flax seed oil provides into DHA themselves. This fatty acid is converted into DHA by the cell membranes in the mother’s body. During the first 6 months 20 mg DHA/kg of body weight per day is needed by a baby, and this leads to the accumulation of 10 mg/ kg of body weight per day in the baby’s body. 50% of the DHA is used by the brain.
Normal breast milk supplies 60 mg/ kg of infant body weight per day. Why is there such an over abundance? The extra DHA is there for times when the baby must face stress, and will need more.
Mother’s milk DHA varies according to the diet of the mother. Levels of DHA in mother’s milk could be described as:
- 0.05% (vegetarian women who do not receive omega-3 supplementation)
- 0.3% (average omnivorous women)
- 1.4% Inuit women
This DHA content will drop over time unless the woman supplements her diet with DHA. For instance, a German study compared women who received supplements of DHA during the period 4 – 6 weeks postpartum with women who did not.
200mg of DHA daily, served to increase milk DHA by 28% in the women who took supplements. Non supplemented women saw a 25% drop in milk DHA content during this time period. New and nursing mothers need to supplement their diet with omega-3 oils, both for their baby’s sake as well as for their own sakes.
Fish oils were used in these tests for DHA. However, flax seed oil could be used, provided that care is taken to prevent interference with excess omega-6 oils (see Tips on Supplementing Omega-3's Using Flax Seed Oil in Diet, Nutrition & Healthy Eating)
For both their own and their baby's sake, nursing mothers need to supplement their diets with omega-3 fatty acids.
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Essential Fatty Acids in Formula Fed Babies
American baby formulas incorporate large amounts of alpha-linolenic (LNA) acid. Doses are at 390 mg per day, Unfortunately babies can not make use of LNA. Formula fed infants loose 993 mg of total body DHA over the first 6 months. In comparison, breast fed babies actually gain twice this amount, around 1882 mg of DHA. In other words, when losses and gains are considered:
- Breast fed babies gain a three fold increase in total body DHA over formula fed babies
- Breast fed babies gain a two fold increase in brain DHA over formula fed babies
Normally brain DHA content triples during first 3 months of life. This omega-3 fatty acid is needed for brain development, grey matter in particular, and retina development in the eyes. Some studies show that babies exhibit better problem solving when they were fed DHA supplemented formula when they are compared to babies that did not receive supplemented formula. Other studies have shown that premature infants who were fed standard infant formulas have impaired visual function.
In America, babies that are being fed baby formula need to receive DHA supplementation. American baby formula, does not include DHA, at this time. Omega-3 in the form of LNA is supplied in baby formulas. However, babies can not yet convert this form of omega-3 fatty acid into the DHA form which they require. If your baby is in America and receiving infant formula, it is imperative that you supply her with supplemental DHA.
Gordon, Garry, M.D., D.O., M.D.(H.), Herb Joiner-Bey, N.D.(2004).The Omega-3 Miracle. Freedom Press, Topanga, CA