Fish oil in pregnancy may boost babies' brain development

March 28, 2008 in Nutrition Topics in the News, Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Fish oil in pregnancy may boost babies' brain development

Expectant mothers who eat enough omega-3 fats late in pregnancy may give their babies a brain-power boost, a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics suggests.

Researchers found that among 109 Inuit infants they followed, those whose umbilical-cord blood was higher in  DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 acid, at birth did better in tests of infant brain and eye development at the ages of 6 and 11 months.

DHA is one of the two omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish like salmon, char, sardines and herring. Because of the fat's vital role in brain development, experts have recommended that pregnant women get an average of 300 milligrams of DHA daily.

The new findings highlight the importance of DHA in the mothers' diet during the third trimester, when the DHA content of accumulates rapidly in a developing baby's brain.

North American diets are typically low in DHA; this study suggests that increasing pregnant women's intake is likely to be beneficial.

The Inuits in this study were from the northern tip of Quebec. Their traditional diet is rich in fish, but many Inuit people have adopted a more Western style of eating; as a result, mothers' DHA levels at the time they gave birth ranged from the low levels typically seen in the U.S. and southern Canada to relatively high concentrations.

When the babies were 6 months old, they were given standard tests of visual acuity and memory. The researchers found that higher umbilical cord-blood DHA at birth was linked to better performance on these tests.

The same was true when the babies were given tests of cognitive and motor development at the age of 11 months.

There was no correlation, however, between the infants' test performance and DHA from breast milk. According to the research team, it's likely that mothers' third-trimester DHA intake is more important than babies' consumption of breast-feeding because of the critical third trimester brain growth spurt.

Besides fish, such as char and salmon, other DHA sources include fish oil supplements and algae-derived DHA, which is included in some prenatal vitamins.

Pregnant and breast-feeding women are advised to avoid some fish, however, due to potentially high levels of mercury. These include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tuna steaks, orange roughy and tile fish.

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