Infants and young children need a lot of energy to grow and develop, but they have small tummies so they can’t eat much in one sitting. That’s why they need to eat more often than older children and adults, and why they need energy dense foods.
Our main sources of energy are fats and carbohydrates. Fats actually provide more than double the energy of carbohydrates, which is why breast milk is rich in fats (supplying around 45% of the energy intake for babies).
Fats also play other important roles in the body, depending on their different types, which include saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The polyunsaturated fats can be further divided into omega-3 and omega-6 fats. (Yes it’s complicated, but please keep reading!)
Omega-3 fats play a vital role in the development of infants and young children, particularly for the brain and eyes. They’re also important for our health as adults.
There are different omega-3 fats, with one of primary importance being Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Unlike some nutrients, humans can’t make DHA so we must get adequate amounts from the foods we eat. The richest source is seafood, especially oily fish, with smaller amounts present in meat and eggs.
DHA is especially important for infants. High concentrations of this fat are found in the retina of the eye and in the brain, where levels continue to increase for the first two years of life.
The amount of DHA found in breast milk varies according to how much the mother consumes in her diet. This is why it’s recommended that mothers increase their intake of DHA during pregnancy (from 90 mg per day to 115 mg per day). Eating according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines during pregnancy and breastfeeding will help ensure these omega-3 needs are met. As a guide, the Heart Foundation recommends that eating 2–3 serves of fish per week, including oily fish like salmon and tuna, provides up to 500 mg of marine-sourced omega-3 fats (e.g. DHA) per day. See the heart Foundations ‘Sources of Omega-3s’ handout here, to see which other foods are rich in Omega-3 fats. However, take care to avoid fish known to be higher in mercury contamination, such as swordfish, orange roughy and ling.
If pregnant women and lactating mothers are concerned, an Accredited Practising Dietitian can help with nutrition advice and also with choosing the best omega-3 supplement for pregnancy and lactation, if one is needed.
Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is another important omega-3 fat that we must get adequate amounts of from our diet. ALA is found in plant foods such as walnuts, linseed, chia seeds, legumes and in some vegetables, including broccoli and leafy greens. The Australian Heart Foundation recommends that we should aim for 1 gram of plant-sourced omega-3s (ALA) each day. Again, see the Heart Foundations ‘Sources of Omega-3s’ handout here, to see which foods are rich in ALA Omega-3 fats. As a guide, 30 grams of walnuts and 15 grams of chia seeds contain a whopping 1.9 and 2.7 grams of ALA, respectively.
Infant formulas are scientifically designed to replicate breast milk as closely as possible, and most will include omega-3 fats, particularly DHA. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommends the following daily intakes for infants and children:
To ensure your child is getting enough omega-3s, be sure to eat enough yourself if you’re breastfeeding, or choose a formula that includes them, particularly DHA. As a guide, look for an infant formula that contains a total of 60 mg Omega-3 fats per 100 mL of prepared formula (which means DHA plus ALA).