DHA Intake during Pregnancy and Breastfeeding = Healthier Mother and Baby©

By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN
Nutrition Consultant
March 2016

Pregnant and breastfeeding women are eating for two!  This doubles the need for enough of the right nutrition. Everyone knows that eating healthy during pregnancy is important, but many do not know how to get the right omega-3 fats. While there are different forms of omega-3 fats, the crucial need during pregnancy is for docosahexaenoic (DHA), an omega-3 only found in fish, seafood, and supplements.

Did you know that DHA is essential for healthy infant development?  

DHA is an essential nutrient during pregnancy. Human bodies need DHA but we cannot make it so we must get it from food or supplements. DHA is important for general good health; for example, it works in cells throughout the body and is especially useful for the heart, brain, eyes, nerves, and reproduction. But it is absolutely crucial during pregnancy for proper growth and development of the baby’s brain, eyes, central nervous system, and immune system. Research indicates there are critical times when DHA is needed during pregnancy and if a woman does not get enough DHA during these times, the effects can be long-lasting and not reversible1.  

Through scientific research, we have learned about many benefits of DHA during pregnancy.  More benefits are being discovered. Here are just some reasons to get your DHA!

Good DHA intake has been shown to:

* Improve mum’s physical health to carry the baby
* Support a healthy pregnancy
* Supply the baby’s developing brain, eyes, and nerves with required nutrition
* Strengthen immune function in mum and baby
* Improve mum’s mental health and mood before and after delivery  
* Improve vision and coordination in young children
* Improve brain development in young children
* Improve social skills in children of preschool age
* Improve handwriting and reading skills in children of primary school age
* Improve focus and learning ability in children of primary school age

Problems associated with getting too little DHA.
Research indicates that low DHA intake can result in decreased verbal IQ, inferior communication skills, suboptimal behaviors, and compromised fine motor and social development in primary school-age children. In addition, mothers who don’t get enough DHA are more likely to suffer from postpartum depression.

For an infant, mum is the only source of DHA
DHA is important all through pregnancy, but getting enough during the third trimester and during the first three months of breastfeeding is crucial because this is when the infant’s brain and eyes are developing most rapidly. The requirements for DHA double in the final weeks of pregnancy, during the brain growth spurt. So mothers need to increase their intake of DHA for the healthy development of their child and, of course, to support their own health and well-being. Consuming DHA from purified fish oil supplements during pregnancy improves DHA levels in the infant and helps maintain healthy levels for mum too2.

How to get enough DHA
Pregnant women in the UK are not getting the DHA that they and their babies need. In fact, national diet and health survey reports that women in the UK consume less than one serving of fish a week.

Salmon, sardines, pilchards, herring, kipper, and mackerel provide the richest dietary sources of DHA. Fish also supplies complete protein, trace minerals, and EPA, another omega-3 fat. EPA also has health benefits but during pregnancy, it is best to focus on getting enough DHA. Unfortunately, some popular and inexpensive fish, like tilapia, is very low in DHA (nutritionally, tilapia is more like chicken).

Nuts and seeds don’t provide what pregnant women need. Walnuts, flax, and chia seeds are healthy foods, but they do not provide the right fat-based nutrients that babies need for proper growth and development. For vegetarians and vegans, a DHA made from algae is available as supplements and in fortified foods.

The UK Department of Health and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Committee on Toxicity all recommend that women who are pregnant or plan to get pregnant3:

* Eat 2 portions of fish (140 g) per week, with at least one of them being oily fish*.
* May eat up to 4 medium-size cans or 2 tuna steaks per week.
* Avoid eating shark, marlin, and swordfish.

*Oily fish are naturally rich in oils, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, pilchards; this oil is where DHA is found.

Should you be worried about toxins in fish?
Some pregnant women are concerned about eating fish due to the possibility of environmental toxins, such as mercury. These fears about fish may be unfounded. Mercury, for example, is also found in polluted air, pesticides, and dental fillings and avoiding fish may not lower mercury levels.

Purified fish oil supplements are a convenient and affordable way to get DHA
Pregnant women who don’t like to eat fish, who don’t eat enough fish, or who want to ensure they are getting the nutrition they need choose to take fish oil supplements.  Purified fish oil supplements are a convenient and reliable way to get DHA.
Note: Some fish oil supplements contain a high amount of vitamin A (such as cod liver oil), which is best avoided during pregnancy.

How much DHA do you need?  
During pregnancy and while breastfeeding, the optimal intake of DHA is 300 – 600 mg per day and up to 900 mg in the last trimester and first few months of breastfeeding. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommend that pregnant women get at least 200 mg DHA in addition to the 250-300 mg DHA + EPA that all adults should be getting every day.4,5,6,7

* DHA is an essential fat needed in the diet.
* DHA is crucial for healthy infant and child development.
* Mum is the only source of DHA for her baby while in the womb.
* Mum’s adequate intake of DHA improves the health and well-being of herself and her baby.
* The benefits from getting enough DHA during pregnancy last a lifetime.
* Supplementing with purified DHA fish oil is a convenient and reliable solution.

Wiley’s Finest Prenatal DHA provides 600 mg DHA in 2 easy-to-swallow capsules.  It is made from fish oils that are certified sustainable and responsibly wild-caught by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), made in the USA, and independently tested and certified by NSF to ensure purity.

1 Carlson SE. Am J Clin Nutr, 2009;89,678S-684S.
2 Krauss-Etschmann S, Shadid R, et al. Am J Clin Nutr, 2007;85:1392-1400.
3 Food Standards Agency, Department of Health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition Advice on fish consumption: benefits and risks. 2004. The Stationary Office. London, UK. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/338801/SACN_Advice_on_Fish_Consumption.pdf
4 Hibbeln JR, David JM. Prostaglandins, Leukot & Essent Fatty Acids, 2009;81(2-3):179-186.
5 Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition. Report of an expert consultation. FAO Food Nutr Pap. 2010;91:1-166.
6 European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition, and Allergies.
7 Koletzko B, Cetin I, Thomas BJ for the Perinatal Lipid Intake Working Group. Br J Nutr, 2007;1-5.