Breast milk supplies essential fats to your baby's diet.

Fat in Milk & Brain Development in Children

by Sharon Perkins

Babies don't need to follow a low-fat diet; in fact, not getting enough fat in the first few years of life can harm brain development. Breast milk contains the exact amount of fat necessary for brain development, and artificial formulas attempt to mimic the same type of ingredients. While your baby can drink cow's milk after he turns one year old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that he stick to whole-fat milk, in most cases, until he reaches the age of 2.

Fats for Infants

Around 50 percent of the calories in breast milk and infant formulas come from fat, the United States Department of Agriculture reports. Breast milk contains over 150 different fatty acids, according to the International Milk Genomics Consortium. Docosahexaenoic acid or DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, ranks as one of the most important types of fatty acids for brain development. The amount of DHA in breast milk varies, depending on a mother's diet. Breastfeeding mothers who consume diets higher in omega-3 fatty acids, found in some fish, produce breast milk with higher amounts of the nutrient. Many formula manufacturers do supplement their product with DHA, but still can't duplicate the mix of fats in breast milk.

Risks of Low-Fat Diets in Children

If your child doesn't get enough fats in his diet, especially during infancy, he may not experience optimal brain growth or visual development. The decreased amount of DHA and other fats might account for the small gap in IQ reported in some studies between breastfed and formula-fed infants, psychologist and anthropologist Dr. Gwen Dewar reports on her website, Parenting Science.

When to Switch to Low-Fat

Up to at least age 2, most children need a diet high in fats for brain growth and development. After age 2, the AAP recommends reducing your child's fat intake in milk by switching to low-fat milk. If your child is overweight or obese, his pediatrician might suggest changing to low-fat milk earlier. Don't make the change before age 2 unless your pediatrician specifically recommends it.

Opposing Views

Not everyone agrees with the recommendation to reduce fats in a child's diet after age 2. Bruce Watkins, professor of lipid chemistry and metabolism at Purdue University, and Bernhard Hennig, professor of cell nutrition at the University of Kentucky feel that children under age 5 get too little fat in their diet, rather than too much. They recommend increasing exercise rather than reducing dietary fat as a means of weight control in young children.

About the Author

A registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology, Sharon Perkins has also coauthored and edited numerous health books for the Wiley "Dummies" series. Perkins also has extensive experience working in home health with medically fragile pediatric patients.

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