When you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, getting enough calcium and folic acid is very important. But you also need DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an Omega-3 fat that is important for your baby’s normal brain and eye development. If you’re pregnant and breastfeeding and aren’t eating 2-3 servings of fatty fish (such as salmon) per week, you’re not getting enough DHA.
Why is DHA important?
DHA is naturally found in breast milk and supports normal brain and eye development, helping your baby achieve developmental milestones like smiling, crawling, walking and grasping. DHA is important because it supports the rapid growth of your baby’s brain. From birth to your baby’s 1st birthday, her brain will have grown 175%. By the time she’s two years old, most of her brain growth will have already occurred.
“Research shows that DHA is needed in high levels in the brain and eyes to support normal development,” says Alberta paediatrician Dr. Peter Nieman.
“Mothers need to be aware of the importance of including DHA in their diet during pregnancy and, following birth, ensuring their infants are getting beneficial amounts of this important nutrient through breast milk. If a woman is not breast feeding her baby, she should choose an infant formula that contains DHA.”
How does my baby get DHA?
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, your baby gets DHA from the foods you eat. If you eat less than 2-3 servings of fatty fish (such as salmon) per week, it is likely she won’t get enough DHA. To meet her needs, talk to your doctor about taking a DHA supplement.
If you’re feeding her a formula, make sure it’s supplemented with DHA. Choose a formula that contains adequate DHA - see the next question.
Do all infant formulas contain DHA?
No. And not all formulas supplemented with DHA contain the same amounts.
Look on the formula’s list of ingredients. It should include about 11.5 mg/100 mL of DHA, which will be listed by its full name, docosahexaenoic acid. This level is similar to the average level in breast milk*, and consistent with the positions of Health Experts, including the Dietitians of Canada.†
*Average level of DHA and ARA in worldwide breast milk is 0.32% and 0.47% (mean ± standard deviation of total fatty acids) based on an analysis of 65 studies of 2,474 women) †Dietitians of Canada recommends that infants who are formula fed be given a formula in which DHA consists of at least 0.2% of total fatty acids
What foods contain DHA?
Only fatty fish and shellfish have significant amounts of DHA. To get enough DHA, pregnant or breastfeeding Moms need at least two servings of 75 grams (2.5 ounces) per week of fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, Atlantic mackerel and herring.
Other good sources of DHA include:
- Pollock (Boston Bluefish)
- Rainbow Trout
- Lake Whitefish
- Blue Crab
Some types of fish should be avoided because they may contain high levels of mercury. For a list of these, click here
How much DHA do I need?
Although a conclusive required daily amount of DHA has not been established, expert panels recommend at least 200 -300 mg of DHA daily for pregnant and breastfeeding women.1,2
Do I need a DHA supplement?
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and aren’t able to get adequate DHA from eating fish and shellfish, talk to your doctor or dietitian about taking a DHA supplement.
What’s the difference between DHA and ALA (another Omega-3 fat)?
Our diets include different types of Omega-3 fats. One type is found in some vegetable oils, such as soybean, rapeseed (canola), and flaxseed, and in walnuts. This fat is called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).
Both you and your baby can convert a very low amount of ALA into DHA. For this reason, both of you are unlikely to get the recommended amount of DHA from ALA alone. When you’re breastfeeding, the best way to ensure she gets enough DHA is for you to eat fatty fish. If you’re formula feeding your newborn, choose a formula supplemented with DHA.
What is ARA?
Arachidonic acid is a type of Omega-6 fat naturally found in breast milk. ARA, like DHA (an omega-3 fat), is important for your baby’s developing brain and eyes. North Americans tend to have very high intakes of Omega-6 fats, especially from meat and eggs, and Omega-6 deficiency is extremely rare.
Learn More about Starting Solids 1. Brenna T. European consensus conference on recommendations for long chain polyunsaturated consumption for pregnant and lactating women (PERILIP). ISSFAL Newsletter. 2005;12:4-6. 2. Simopoulos AP, Leaf A, Salem N. Workshop on the essentiality of and recommended dietary intakes for omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. J Am Coll Nutr. 1999;18:487-489.