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Breastfeeding Supports Healthy Brains for Babies - and Moms
The key is seafood for Mom, to replenish vital stores of DHA and other nutrients for her and her new child. 10/12/2020 By Eliza Leggatt

In 2008, I was nursing a broken heart - and a newborn baby. The joy of my firstborn’s arrival was overshadowed by the abrupt hormonal postpartum crash and some challenging personal issues in my life. It felt almost unbearable at times. We made it through that tough time together, thanks to supportive parents, a great pediatrician, and especially, breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is the single most beneficial gift any mother can give her child to impact their health, but amazingly, research shows the benefits for moms who are able to breastfeed are both immediate and long-lasting.  

I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but breastfeeding my new baby was helping me as much as it was helping her. Studies indicate not only that breastfeeding mothers typically experience lower levels of depressive symptoms (Hahn-Holbrook, 2013) but oxytocin release during lactation can help regulate blood pressure, lower stress, and decrease levels of cortisol, sometimes called the “stress hormone” (Handlin, 2009).

Human breast milk is a marvel; a dynamic, medicinal food that is created and distinctly “personalized” for their infants by mothers at the most intimate and individual level. Its composition varies almost constantly, changing from feed to feed and even within feedings, according to and perhaps even influencing circadian rhythms of both mother and child (Sánchez et al., 2013).

Teeming with thousands of diverse bioactive molecules that offer protection against infection and inflammation, mother’s milk begins laying the foundation for a baby’s lifelong immune response. It starts and begins to form the immune system, develops internal organs, and jump-starts healthy microbial colonization of the newborn baby’s mostly sterile gut (Yu et al., 2018).

In recent years, the indispensable role of DHA, the brain’s main structural fat, has been increasingly understood to not only impact infant brain growth, but a new mother’s mental state as well. And while I was nursing that little baby, I was giving away that “superfat” and in desperate need of replenishment. My baby, like all babies, was completely dependent on me for the DHA that would help to grow her amazing brain.

Brain Growth Spurt

The growth of the new baby’s brain is occurring at an astonishing rate of one percent a day; the cerebellum has doubled by the time the baby is 90 days old (Holland, 2014). At birth, the newborn brain is already 25 percent of its adult weight. By age 2, it will reach over 75 percent of its adult weight (Dekaban, 1978).

During this short window of unparalleled cerebral growth, nourishing a baby’s brain is perhaps the most important work of breastfeeding. Babies are entirely dependent upon their mothers for omega-3 DHA, the primary structural fat of the brain whose critical role facilitates every neuronal function.

Lifelong benefits that breastfeeding also confers to mothers, such as a reduction in breast cancer risk (Bernier, 2000) are often noted, yet the needs of mothers during this pivotal time do not receive nearly enough attention. An abrupt shift occurs almost immediately after birth - just as the focus of the mother has shifted to her newly arrived child, so has everyone else’s.

Keep the Focus On Mom's Diet

Frustratingly, this is precisely when the camera should be zooming in on the health and diet of the mother. Not only has she just completed the most physically taxing and arduous task that will ever be asked of her body, but the demands will continue from a tiny (and adorable) taskmaster.

Mothers and babies alike are highly vulnerable in the first few weeks after birth, and nourishing both with omega-3 fats, especially DHA, is an urgent priority. Higher maternal DHA status and higher concentrations of DHA in breast milk have both been associated with lower rates of postpartum depression, (Hibbeln, 2002) yet 95 percent of pregnant and childbearing-age women do not consume enough omega-3 (Zhang, 2018).

The Unique DHA Requirements for Women

To say that our bodies prioritize DHA would be a gross understatement. Young women begin selectively accumulating and storing DHA in their fatty tissue, mostly the buttocks, hips, and thighs, from their own pubescence, where it is held in reserve until the third trimester of pregnancy and lactation (Lassek, 2006). For this reason, young women may have a greater requirement for omega-3 and sensitivity to omega-6 imbalances from a very young age, which can affect their own cognitive performance (Lassek, 2011).

Interestingly, as much as up to 80 percent of the DHA transferred from mother to baby during lactation is liberated from these “storage facilities” in hips and thighs. Yet, increasing dietary intake can still dramatically improve DHA levels present in breastmilk, particularly as DHA levels increasingly lessen without replenishment (Sherry, 2015).

So it’s vital to note that the richest food source of DHA is seafood. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that women who are breastfeeding consume between 8-12 ounces of a variety of seafood a week (USDA, 2015). If you have concerns about mercury contamination, the risk to the developing child is far lower than the risk from insufficient seafood intake, as we indicated in Eat 53 Pounds of Salmon in One Week? 

Insufficient Fat Funds

Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of accidentally overdrawing our bank account balance with one of two outcomes: either our savings funds are transferred unbeknownst to us to cover this deficit, or we go into debt.

Similarly, what happens to the mother who does not have much DHA in those fatty tissue stores or dietary intake available to withdraw from? What happens to her baby?

Nutritional deficiencies can be insidious and difficult to detect; some, like iron, DHA, and iodine, have unique windows of time wherein the deficiency must be addressed or irreversible damage is possible.

Breastmilk is unequivocally the biologically superior nutrition for babies, and the human brain is utterly dependent on receiving sufficient DHA via maternal stores and diet. The mother’s role in transmitting this is both essential and precious. Without a doubt, the physical transformations and nutritional requirements that are specific to mothers hold unparalleled opportunities for future generational wellness. They touch upon every single aspect of future health.

Final note: Obstacles to breastfeeding do exist. The author is aware of this. These obstacles present a challenge for those unable to nurse their children due to circumstance. Social and political reform to make breastfeeding easier for mothers is vital. For those who cannot breastfeed, discuss options with your physician. 

The simple truth is that nothing will match breastmilk in nutritional value, and every mother should be supported if she makes the choice to breastfeed. If you are or know of a nursing mother who needs immediate support or assistance, please contact The International Breastfeeding Centre.

Sources

Ballard, O., & Morrow, A. L. (2013). Human milk composition: nutrients and bioactive factors. Pediatric clinics of North America, 60(1), 49–74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002

Beluska-Turkan, K., Korczak, R., Hartell, B., Moskal, K., Maukonen, J., Alexander, D. E., Salem, N., Harkness, L., Ayad, W., Szaro, J., Zhang, K., & Siriwardhana, N. (2019). Nutritional Gaps and Supplementation in the First 1000 Days. Nutrients, 11(12), 2891. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11122891

Bernier MO, Plu-Bureau G, Bossard N, Ayzac L, Thalabard JC (2000). Breastfeeding and risk of breast cancer: a metaanalysis of published studies. Hum Reprod Update, 6, 374-86. https://doi.org/10.1093/humupd/6.4.374

Das, J. K., Lassi, Z. S., Hoodbhoy, Z., & Salam, R. A. (2018). Nutrition for the Next Generation: Older Children and Adolescents. Annals of nutrition & metabolism, 72 Suppl 3, 56–64. https://doi.org/10.1159/000487385

Dekaban A S, Sadowsky D. 1978. “Changes in Brain Weights during the Span of Human Life: Relation of Brain Weights to Body Heights and Body Weights.” Annals of Neurology 4 (4): 345–56. [PubMed] [Reference list]

Hahn-Holbrook, J., Haselton, M. G., Dunkel Schetter, C., & Glynn, L. M. (2013). Does breastfeeding offer protection against maternal depressive symptomatology?: A prospective study from pregnancy to 2 years after birth. Archives of women's mental health, 16(5), 411–422. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-013-0348-9

Handlin L, Jonas W, Petersson M, Ejdebäck M, Ransjö-Arvidson AB, Nissen E, Uvnäs-Moberg K. Effects of sucking and skin-to-skin contact on maternal ACTH and cortisol levels during the second day postpartum-influence of epidural analgesia and oxytocin in the perinatal period. Breastfeed Med. 2009 Dec;4(4):207-20. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2009.0001. PMID: 19731998.

Hibbeln JR. Seafood consumption, the DHA content of mothers' milk and prevalence rates of postpartum depression: a cross-national, ecological analysis. J Affect Disord. 2002 May;69(1-3):15-29. doi: 10.1016/s0165-0327(01)00374-3. PMID: 12103448.

Holland D, Chang L, Ernst TM, Curran M, Buchthal SD, Alicata D, Skranes J, Johansen H, Hernandez A, Yamakawa R, Kuperman JM, Dale AM. Structural growth trajectories and rates of change in the first 3 months of infant brain development. JAMA Neurol. 2014 Oct;71(10):1266-74. doi: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2014.1638. PMID: 25111045; PMCID: PMC4940157.

Lassek WD, Gaulin SJ. Changes in body fat distribution in relation to parity in American women: a covert form of maternal depletion. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2006 Oct;131(2):295-302. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.20394. PMID: 16596596.

Lassek, W. D., & Gaulin, S. J. (2011). Sex differences in the relationship of dietary Fatty acids to cognitive measures in american children. Frontiers in evolutionary neuroscience, 3, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnevo.2011.00005

Lauritzen, Lotte et al. “DHA Effects in Brain Development and Function.” Nutrients vol. 8,1 6. 4 Jan. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8010006

Rapoport, S. I. (2003). In vivo approaches to quantifying and imaging brain arachidonic and docosahexaenoic acid metabolism. J. Pediatr. 143, S26–S34.

Thompson, M., Hein, N., Hanson, C., Smith, L. M., Anderson-Berry, A., Richter, C. K., Stessy Bisselou, K., Kusi Appiah, A., Kris-Etherton, P., Skulas-Ray, A. C., & Nordgren, T. M. (2019). Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake by Age, Gender, and Pregnancy Status in the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003⁻2014. Nutrients, 11(1), 177. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11010177

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/.

Yu, J. C., Khodadadi, H., Malik, A., Davidson, B., Salles, É., Bhatia, J., Hale, V. L., & Baban, B. (2018). Innate Immunity of Neonates and Infants. Frontiers in immunology, 9, 1759. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2018.01759

Zhang, Z., Fulgoni, V. L., Kris-Etherton, P. M., & Mitmesser, S. H. (2018). Dietary Intakes of EPA and DHA Omega-3 Fatty Acids among US Childbearing-Age and Pregnant Women: An Analysis of NHANES 2001-2014. Nutrients, 10(4), 416. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10040416

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