Over the years, I’ve been asked several questions about dietary fats and which ones are the most important for young babies to receive. This month I’m providing a Q&A, which attempts to answers some questions on the fats in breast milk that nourish and aid in a child’s brain development and function. If you have additional questions please send them to [email protected] with “question” in the subject line.
Q1. What fats are key for the brain that are in breast milk?
A1. The composition of human milk is the standard for infant nutrition. Human milk contains many hundreds to thousands of distinct bioactive molecules that protect against infection and inflammation and contribute to immune function maturation, brain development and function, and healthy bacteria in your intestine (1). Human breast milk changes in composition over many months of feeding; it varies between feeds, time of day and even between seasons.
The amount of fat in milk is highly variable. A study of milk from 71 mothers over a 24-hour period found that the milk fat content was significantly lower in night and morning feedings compared to afternoon or evening feedings. (2) Two important fats found in breast milk are ARA and DHA, which are key for your infant’s health as they support brain development and function and have many other reported benefits.
Q2. What are DHA and ARA?
A2. ARA and DHA are key building blocks for your infant’s brain and occur naturally in breastmilk. The ratio of ARA to DHA is very important; in breast milk there is approximately 1.5-2 times the amount of ARA as compared with DHA.
ARA is Arachidonic Acid, an omega-6 unsaturated fat always present in breast milk regardless of your diet. DHA, or Docosahexaenoic Acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid that is an important nutrient for brain development and growth. ARA works in combination with DHA for the development and function of infant cognition and vision.
Q3. How do I ensure my baby gets enough DHA and ARA?
If you continue prenatal vitamins with DHA and breast feed exclusively, your infant will get ARA and DHA from breastmilk.
In conclusion, breast milk has the perfect combination of proteins, fats, vitamins and carbohydrates that your baby needs for optimal growth and development. Keep in mind that the amount and types of vitamins in breast milk are directly related to the mother’s nutrient intake. Because of the need for these vitamins, dietitians, lactation consultants, and I advocate all nursing mothers continue on prenatal vitamins with DHA. You will achieve your daily requirement of ARA naturally from your diet and extra supplementation isn’t necessary.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to send questions to [email protected].
1.HumaBallard O, and AL Morrow.Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2013; 60: 49-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002
2.Kent JC, Mitoulas LR, Cregan MD, Ramsay DT, Doherty DA, Hartmann PE. Volume and frequency of breastfeedings and fat content of breast milk throughout the day. Pediatrics. 2006;117(3):e387–395.