Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an important component of membrane phospholipids in the retina and brain and accumulates rapidly in these tissues during early infancy. DHA is present in human milk, but the amount varies considerably and is largely dependent on maternal diet.

This article reviews data addressing the impact of different DHA intakes by lactating women on infant and maternal outcomes to determine if available data are sufficient to estimate optimal breast milk DHA content and estimate dietary reference intakes (DRIs) for DHA by breast-feeding mothers.

Results of published observational studies and interventional trials assessing the impact of maternal DHA intake (or breast milk DHA content) on infant visual function, neurodevelopment, and immunologic status were reviewed. Studies related to the potential impact of DHA intake on depression or cognitive function of lactating women also were reviewed.

Although only a limited number of studies are available in the current medical literature, and study results have not been consistent, better infant neurodevelopment and/or visual function have been reported with higher vs. lower levels of breast milk DHA. The effect of DHA intake on the incidence or severity of depression in lactating women is not clear.

Increasing breast milk DHA content above that typically found in the US, by increasing maternal DHA intake, may confer neurodevelopmental benefits to the recipient breast-fed infant. However, current data are insufficient to permit determination of specific DRIs during this period.