Omega-3’s in breast milk

Where do infants get omega-3’s from?

The health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are well described in infants and children. They contribute to the early development of the brain and eyes, protect the immune system, and contribute to the structure of all developing tissues.

Omega-3’s are essential fats, because they cannot be produced in large enough amounts to have a good health benefit. This is because we, as humans, are missing the cellular processes needed to produce them ourselves [1]. So, we need to consume them.

Infants get their omega-3’s in three different ways:

  • Accumulated across the placenta during pregnancy
  • Passed from into the breastmilk
  • Through nutrient milk formulas, or other food or supplementary sources of omega-3’s

How much omega-3 is in breast milk?

In a research study looking into what kind of fats are in breastmilk, Yuhas et. al (2006) measured the levels of DHA in samples of mothers across 9 different countries.

They found that DHA levels were in the range from 0.17% to 0.99% of total fats in the milk, but levels of ARA (one of the main omega-6 fats) were more constant (0.36-0.49%). The countries with the higher levels of DHA were Japan, the Philippines and Chile, countries on the list with higher fish intake.

In a much larger report, researchers did a collective review of 65 research studies from all over the world [2]. They found human breastmilk averaged out at 0.35% (for DHA) and 0.45% (for ARA).

So, even though DHA is less than 1% of all breast milk fats, which doesn’t seem like much, the levels reflect the amount stored in the mother’s system. What’s more, those countries also had higher levels of EPA, another important omega-3 from mum’s diet.

What are the benefits of DHA in breast milk?

Growth & Development:

Adequate DHA during breastfeeding is a good indicator that it was adequate during pregnancy, as well. This has been shown to support improved birthweight and lower the risk of prematurity, in areas where omega-3 intake is low [3].

Cognition & Behaviour:

Arguably the most important benefit for baby is the continued absorption of DHA into the brain [4], as it grows and starts to activate learning, memory and body control after birth. Infants breastfed on milk with higher omega-3 content have recently been found to have improved temperament [5], including fewer negative reactions. They have also been reported to have a 5-7 point improvement in IQ as toddlers [6]

Eye health and vision:

Visual actuity, which is another word to describe sharpness of vision, has been found to improve in babies whose mum’s breastmilk contained higher DHA levels [7] . Higher DHA in breastmilk is also related to a protective effect against developing eye problems, such as damage in the light sensitive part of the eye (retina) [8].


There is collective evidence of an improvement in immune system function, and a lower risk of developing allergies and asthma in the first few years [9]. This benefit may also extend to preventing appetite losses in infants during illnesses, such as lung infections [10].

Digestive health

Emerging evidence even shows a possible link between breastmilk omega-3 content and gut function later in life. In research models, lower levels of omega-3 in mum’s milk were related to altered gut microbiomes, similar to those seen in gut infections and obesity [11].