Giving your baby the right start - nutritional advice for mothers

When it comes to feeding your new baby, breast is best and always will be. Breast milk is the perfect food for infants containing all the goodness they need plus your antibodies to protect your baby from infections.

But do you know that you can alter the quality of your breast milk according to what you eat? Through your diet you can actually make it richer and more nutritious for your baby. Breast milk contains essential nutrients for your baby, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. But if you're not getting enough through your diet, then you won’t be able to pass this valuable nutrition along to your baby. Here's why.

The first years of life are a time of dramatic growth spurts - in the brain, the eye and the nervous system and scientists now realize that a baby's healthy development depends, among other things, on an adequate supply of fats - or rather, particular types of 'good' fats.

A particular omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), has become known as the 'structural' fatty acid - because it's a major building block throughout the body – especially in the brain and the retina of the eye. In fact, experts recommend that pregnant and nursing women should consume and additional 100-200mg DHA daily.  AA (arachidonic acid), an omega-6 fatty acid, is also an important fatty acid in the brain.

Compelling evidence suggests that babies who get sufficient levels of these omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are likely to have improved intellectual, language and physical development.

While breast milk is always the best choice for your baby's short-term and long-term health, you can actually improve it by making sure you eat the right foods. While most women who eat a typical Western diet get enough AA, they frequently have much lower than average levels of DHA in their blood. Research has shown that supplementing your diet with DHA helps to improve the levels of DHA in breast milk. Simply eating omega-3 rich foods or foods fortified with omega-3s can increase levels of DHA in breast milk. The richest source of omega-3 fats is oily fish - salmon, tuna, sardines and pilchards, and nursing mothers are now encouraged to eat oily fish on a regular basis, with a maximum of two portions a week.

There are some concerns about the safety of eating a lot of oily fish due to the possible presence of mercury and dioxins. Other sources of DHA include DHA-fortified foods like eggs, milk, and yoghurt, and supplements.

For non-fish eaters, microalgae supplements are a vegetarian source rich in DHA and a useful way of increasing DHA omega-3 intake. Further information on sources of omega 3 fatty acids is available from the British Nutrition Foundation’s website, http://www.nutrition.org.uk.

Whether breast or bottle feeding your baby, you can give them a head start by making sure you enrich your diet and theirs with DHA and AA. Your baby will thank you for it.

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