DHA Omega-3 Levels in Breastmilk and Personalized Testing: A Key Nutrient for Infants

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 infant’s 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 maternal diet is a major factor determining how much DHA appears in breast milk for the baby to consume for a healthy development. 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 measurement of DHA omega-3 levels in breast milk (the ‘personalized ‘DHA Omega Score’) during lactation reflects the maternal intake of DHA. The amount of DHA consumed and other factors can influence the DHA status in breast milk. Testing for DHA levels via a few drops applied to specialized paper strips and sent to the lab for gas-liquid chromatographic analyses will provide the DHA % in the sample. A low value, as has been associated with sub-optimal cognitive and visual functioning in infants, can be readily improved in a fairly short time period by the mother consuming increased amounts of DHA from dietary sources (eg, fish) and/or supplements. If desired, re-testing of breast milk can be done to ensure entry into the target DHA zone with a ‘DHA Omega Score’ of at least 0.35 %

An average daily intake of 200-250 mg DHA/day during lactation has been found to elevate breast milk levels to at least 0.35% of total fatty acids, a level which is commonly added to commercial infant formulae. Levels of DHA (0.35%) as present in infant formula clinical trials have resulted in better mental and visual functioning. These benefits of DHA have been reported to extend to better IQ measurements in young children. The target level of DHA in breast milk (a DHA OmegaScore of at least 0.35%) can be expected to provide almost all infants with an intake of at least 100 mgs DHA/day. This target DHA intake for infants has been set by numerous international agencies and expert committees.

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Helland, I. B., et al . Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children's IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics. 111(1):39-44, 2003.

Jensen, C. L., et al . Effects of maternal docosahexaenoic acid intake on visual function and neurodevelopment in breastfed term infants. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 82:125-132, 2005.


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