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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Helping Babies be Their Best

By Michael McBurney

Babies are wonderful, aren’t they? Each is a unique bundle of life, so different and yet so similar with fingers, toes, ears, eyes, wiggles, cries, and other less-appealing bodily functions! Because the world population exceeds 7.3 billion people, we seem to have evolved to successfully transition newborns to healthy adolescents.

In reality, the nutritional value of human milk isn’t constant. Millk composition changes within a feeding, over the entirety of a lactation, and between mothers. Because newborns aren’t exposed to sun, exclusively breastfed infants depend upon the vitamin D being transferred from their mother to her breast milk.

Vio Streym and associates measured the vitamin D concentration in human milk from 107 women (0.5, 4, and 9 mo after delivery) and 48 babies 4 and 9 months after birth. As expected, vitamin D concentrations in human milk varied within a feeding, by seasonality and vitamin D supplementation. The authors found a wide range of breast milk vitamin D concentrations. Vitamin D concentrations were 2-3 fold higher in milk of women using vitamin D supplements.

Variability in the nutritional quality of human milk is not a phenomena exclusive to vitamin D. Infants require the long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acid, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), for brain and eye development. Like vitamin D, the omega-3 content of human milk depends upon maternal fatty acid intake. The DHA (weight %) of human milk ranges from 0.15% (South Africa) to 0.81% (Japan) and 1.40% (Eskimos). The lowest concentrations are found in individuals with very low intake of fatty fish and/or omega-3 supplements. Using omega-3 supplements increases the DHA content of breast milk and blood concentrations in their infants.  

Bottom line: The vitamin D and DHA intake of nursing women affects the nutritional quality of breast milk. Women who maintain their nutritional status during pregnancy and lactation are helping themselves AND giving their nursing child the best start possible.

Main Citation

Vio Streym S, Hojskov CS, Moller UK, Heickendorff L, Vestergaard P, Mosekilde L, Rejnmark L. Vitamin D content in human breast milk: a 9-mo follow-up study. 2015 Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.115105

Other Citations

Ballard O, Morrow AL. Human milk composition: Nutrients and bioactive factors. 2013 Pediatr Clin N Am doi: 10.1016/j.pci.2012.10.002

Hibbeln JR. Seafood consumption, the DHA content of mothers’ milk and prevalence rates of postpartum depression: a cross-national, ecological analysis. 2002 J Affect Dis doi: 10.1016/S0165-0327(01)00374-3

Jensen CL, Maude M, Anderson RE, Heird WC. Effect of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation of lactating women on the fatty acid composition of breast milk lipids and maternal and infant plasma phospholipids. 2000 Am J Clin Nutr 71(1)292s-299s