Human milk provides all the dietary essential fatty acids, linoleic acid (LA; 18:2n-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3), as well as their longer-chain more-unsaturated metabolites, including arachidonic acid (20:4n-6) and DHA (22:6n-3) to support the growth and development of the breast-fed infant.

Human milk levels of LA have increased in Westernized nations from mean levels (g/100 g total fatty acids) of 6 to 12-16 over the last century, paralleling the increase in dietary intake of LA-rich vegetable oils. DHA levels (g/100 g total milk fatty acids) vary from 1% and are lowest in countries in which the intake of DHA from fish and other animal tissue lipids is low.

The role of DHA in infant nutrition is of particular importance because DHA is accumulated specifically in the membrane lipids of the brain and retina, where it is important to visual and neural function.

An important question is the extent to which many human diets that contain low amounts of n-3 fatty acids may compromise human development.

The present paper reviews current knowledge on maternal diet and human milk fatty acids, the implications of maternal diet as the only source of essential fatty acids for infant development both before and after birth, and recent studies addressing the maternal intakes and milk DHA levels associated with risk of low infant neural system maturation.