By Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD | November 30, 2018

Infancy is a year of rapid growth, and proper vision and brain development is key to hitting developmental milestones during a baby’s first 12 months, and beyond.1 Experts say that optimal vision in early life may influence brain development.2 While babies need a range of nutrients for growth and well-being, some nutrients are more important than others for the eyes and brain.

How the Eyes and the Brain Work Together

Vision is a partnership between the brain and the eyes. As light enters the eyes, photoreceptors in the retina convert it to signals that travel through the optic nerve to the brain for processing, allowing a child to see shapes and color, register movement, and determine depth.3

Babies are not born with perfect vision. Photoreceptors continue to mature after birth. While a full-term newborn can focus on objects at only about eight to 12 inches away, by age one, the retina is more developed, and the eyes have reached about two-thirds of their adult size. 1   However, a child’s photoreceptors only reach adult lengths at about age four, at which point vision sharpness is close to adult levels.29

During early life, balanced nutrition supports the rapid development of a baby’s brain and eyes, as well as other parts of a growing body. Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for baby and provides amongst other lutein, zeaxanthin and DHA.

Count in Carotenoids

Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, which are natural pigments in food that provide fruits and vegetables, such as corn, spinach, kale, and broccoli, and egg yolks, with their bright hue.4 There’s more to carotenoids than appearance, however.

Lutein and zeaxanthin congregate in each retina and science shows that they may help protect photoreceptors by absorbing blue light, reducing inflammation, and deflecting damage from free radicals.5

Studies suggest that lutein and zeaxanthin are found in areas of the infant brain involved in sight, learning, and memory, too.6 In fact, lutein’s share of total carotenoids is twice as high in infant as compared to adult brains, which suggests lutein’s importance in central nervous system development from very early in life.2

The body doesn’t make carotenoids, so a baby must get these important nutrients from a dietary source of nutrition.

Healthy Fat Fuels Brain and Eye Growth

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fat known for heart health benefits.7 DHA is present in every cell in the body and is the most abundant omega-3 fat in the brain and eyes, underscoring its role in healthy visual development.8,9 Research suggests that consuming adequate DHA during infancy may improve eye-hand coordination at age 2.5 years and improved attention span at 5 years of age.10-13

Seafood such as salmon and tuna are sources of DHA.14 DHA is also added to packaged foods, including some brands of milk, and is available in dietary supplements.

A breastfeeding mom’s DHA intake and her DHA stores influence how much is available to her baby during pregnancy.  Experts have concluded that pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume at least 200 milligrams (mg) of DHA daily, which is in keeping with recommendations from health organizations around the world.15

In the U.S., pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to eat eight to 12 ounces of fish weekly to help insure adequate DHA intake.14-16 Breastfeeding women who choose not to eat seafood may not be getting the suggested daily DHA. Dietary supplements made from algae or fish oils, and fortified foods, can help fill in the gap.

Baby, Let’s Eat!

Colostrum, which is the first milk that mom makes, is yellowish largely because of high levels of carotenoids. The presence of lutein and zeaxanthin in breast milk suggests their importance in infant development17 and in a nursing mom’s eating plan.

Breastfeeding moms should consume a balanced diet so that their children get the nutrients they need every day. Breastfeeding women are the sole source of nutrition for their babies, and what they eat influences the levels of lutein, zeaxanthin and DHA available to their child.18

While it’s best for breastfeeding moms to get the nutrients they need from food, studies show that people in many parts of the world consume much lower than the recommended levels of lutein and zeaxanthin.21-24 Research suggests that 10 milligrams of lutein and two milligrams of zeaxanthin daily are necessary for eye health.19 Evidence suggests that breastfeeding women who take lutein supplements increase the blood levels of lutein in their infants.25

Research shows that DHA levels in breast milk also vary widely worldwide.26 Consuming adequate DHA from food, supplements, or a combination helps to increase mom’s blood levels of DHA, which means more is available to her breastfeeding baby. 27,28


1.  American Optometric Association. Infant vision: Birth to 24 Months of Age.

2.  Johnson EJ. Role of lutein and zeaxanthin in visual and cognitive function throughout the lifespan. Nutr. Rev. 2014;72:605.

3.  National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute. Information for Healthy Vision.

4.  Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Carotenoids. 2016.

5.  American Optometric Association. Caring for Your Vision. Lutein and Zeaxanthin.

6.  Johnson EJ, Vishwanathan, R, Scott TM, Schalch W, Wittwer J, Hausman D, Davey A, Johnson MA, Green RC, Gearing M, Poon, L.  Serum carotenoids as a biomarker for carotenoid concentrations in the brain. FASEB J, 2011; 25.

7.  American Heart Association. Fish and omega-3 fatty acids. 

8.  Martinez M. Tissue levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids during early human development. J Pediatr 1992;120(4 Pt 2):S129.

9.  Lauritzen L, Hansen HS, Jørgensen MH, Michaelsen KF. The essentiality of long chain n-3 fatty acids in relation to development and function of the brain and retina. Prog Lipid Res, 2001;40(1-2):1.

10.  Decsi T, Koletzko B. N-3 fatty acids and pregnancy outcomes. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2005;8(2):161.

11.  Helland IB, Smith L, Saarem K, Saugstad OD, Drevon CA. Maternal supplementation with very-long-chain n-3 fatty acids during pregnancy and lactation augments children's IQ at 4 years of age. Pediatrics 2003;111(1):e39.

12. Jensen CL, Voight RG, Prager TC, Zou YL, Rozelle JC, Turcich MR, Llorente AM, Heird WC. Effects of maternal docosahexaenoic acid intake on visual function and neurodevelopment in breastfed term infants. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;82(1):125-32. 

13. Jensen CL, Voight RG, Llorente AM, Peters SU, Prager TC, Zou YL, Rozelle JC, Turcich MR, Fraley JK, Anderson RE, Heird WC. Effects of early maternal docosahexaenoic acid intake on neuropsychological status and visual acuity at five years of age of breast-fed term infants. J Pediatr 2010;157(6):900.

14. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

15. Koletzko B, Cetin I, Brenna JT for the Perinatal Lipid Intake Working Group. Consensus statement- Dietary fat intakes for pregnant and lactating women. Br J Nutr, 2007;98:873.

16. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.

17. Jewell VC, Mayes CB, Tubman TR, Northrop-Clewes CA, Thurnham DI. A comparison of lutein and zeaxanthin concentrations in formula and human milk samples from Northern Ireland mothers. Eur J Clin Nutr 2004;58(1):90.

18. Cena H, Castellazzi AM, Pietri A, Roggi C, Turconi G. Lutein concentration in human milk during early lactation and its relationship with dietary lutein intake. Public Health Nutr 2009 12(10):1878.

19. American Academy of Opthalmology. How is AMD diagnosed and treated?

20. Mares-Perlman JA, Millen AE, Ficek TL, Hankinson SE. The body of evidence to support a protective role for lutein and zeaxanthin in delaying chronic disease: Overview. J. Nutr. 2002;132:518S–524S.

21. Lucarini M, Lanzi S, D’Evoli L, Aguzzi A, Lombardi-Boccia, G. Intake of vitamin A and carotenoids from the Italian population: Results of an Italian total diet study. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2006;76:103.

22. Manzi F, Flood V, Webb K, Mitchell P. The intake of carotenoids in an older Australian population: The blue mountains eye study. Public Health Nutr. 2002;5:347.

23. Leon L, Fontes F, Rios-Castillo, O. Dietary Consumption of Lutein and Zeaxanthin in Panama: A Cross-Sectional Study. Current Developments in Nutrition 2018;2:(9).     

24.  Lauritzen, L, Hansen HSJørgensen MHMichaelsen KF. The essentiality of long chain n-3 fatty acids in relation to development and function of the brain and retina. Prog Lipid Res 2001;40(1-2):1.

25. Sherry CL, Oliver JS, Renzi LM, Marriage BJ. Lutein supplementation increases breast milk  and plasma lutein concentrations in lactating women and infant plasma concentrations but does not affect other carotenoids. J Nutr. 2014;144(8):1256.

26. Brenna TJ, Varamini B, Jensen RG, Diersen-Schade DA, Boettcher JA, Arterburn LM.   Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Am J Clin Nutr 2007:85(6):1457.

27. Juber BA, Jackson KH, Johnson KB, Harris WS, Baack ML. Breast milk DHA levels may  increase after informing women: a community-based cohort study from South Dakota USA. Int Breastfeed J. 2017;12:7. doi:10.1186/s13006-016-0099-0

28. Bergmann RL, Haschke-Becher E, Klassen-Wigger P, et al. Supplementation with 200 mg/day docosahexaenoic acid from mid-pregnancy through lactation improves the docosahexaenoic acid status of mothers with a habitually low fish intake and of their infants. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(2):157-66.

29.  Handelman GJ, et al. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci 29: 850-855, 1988.

The information contained in Healthy Sights is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Content within this site was based off of recommendations in the United States. Consult your health care practitioner before changing your dietary regimen.

The information contained in Healthy Sights is for informational purposes only and should not be interpreted as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Content within this site was based on scientific information. Consult your health care practitioner before changing your dietary regimen.

© 2018 DSM