The importance of providing the newborn infant with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from breast milk is well established. However, women in the United States, on average, have breast milk DHA levels of 0.20%, which is below the worldwide average (and proposed target) of >0.32%. Additionally, the relationship between maternal red blood cell (RBC) and breast milk DHA levels may provide insight into the sufficiency of DHA recommendations during lactation. Whether the standard recommendation of at least 200 mg/day of supplemental DHA during lactation is sufficient for most women to achieve a desirable RBC and breast milk DHA status is unknown.
Lactating women (n = 27) at about 5 weeks postpartum were enrolled in a 10-12 week controlled feeding study that included randomization to 480 or 930 mg choline/d (diet plus supplementation). As part of the intervention, all participants were required to consume a 200 mg/d of microalgal DHA. RBC and breast milk DHA levels were measured by capillary gas chromatography in an exploratory analysis.
Median RBC DHA was 5.0% (95% CI: 4.3, 5.5) at baseline and 5.1% (4.6, 5.4) after 10 weeks of supplementation (P = 0.6). DHA as a percent of breast milk fatty acids increased from 0.19% (0.18, 0.33) to 0.34% (0.27, 0.38) after supplementation (P5% was unchanged (52% at baseline and week 10). The proportion of women achieving a breast milk DHA level of >0.32% approximately doubled from 30% to 56% (p = 0.06). Baseline RBC and breast milk DHA levels affected their responses to supplementation. Those with baseline RBC and breast milk DHA levels above the median (5% and 0.19%, respectively) experienced no change or a slight decrease in levels, while those below the median had a significant increase. Choline supplementation did not significantly influence final RBC or breast milk DHA levels.
On average, the standard prenatal DHA dose of 200 mg/d did not increase RBC DHA but did increase breastmilk DHA over 10 weeks in a cohort of lactating women in a controlled-feeding study. Baseline DHA levels in RBC and breast milk affected the response to DHA supplementation, with lower levels being associated with a greater increase and higher levels with no change or a slight decrease. Additional larger, dose-response DHA trials accounting for usual intakes and baseline DHA status are needed to determine how to best achieve target breast milk DHA levels and to identify additional modifiers of the variable breast milk DHA response to maternal DHA supplementation.