Pregnancy Tips : Taking Prenatal Vitamins While Trying to Get Pregnant
DHA in Pregnancy: Should You Supplement?
DHA, an essential nutrient, boosts your baby's health
By Catherine Holecko
Medically Reviewed by Kevin O. Hwang, MD, MPH
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Fish oil and walnuts provide an essential fatty acid that can help boost your baby's brain and visual development.
There's nothing fishy about it: DHA (or docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, is an essential nutrient for women — especially during pregnancy. DHA helps build your baby's brain, nervous system, and eyes. "Omega-3s are a specific type of fat that our body needs but cannot make," says Melinda Johnson, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Adults need to get DHA from food, and a baby in utero needs to get these fats from its mother. Newborns get DHA from breast milk or from baby formula supplemented with DHA. It's so important that even if a mother doesn't consume much DHA, her body will use its own reservoir of DHA to provide it to her growing baby during gestation and then through breast milk after birth.
Benefits of DHAfor growing babies include:
- Brain development.In a study of 98 pregnant women, researchers at the School of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of Western Australia found that two years after birth, the children whose mothers had received a high dose of fish oil (including 2.2 g of DHA) in the second half of their pregnancy had higher scores in tests of their eye-hand coordination. Another study, from the University of Oslo in Norway, found that four-year-olds scored better on IQ tests if their mothers took DHA supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding. The results of other studies also suggest positive effects of maternal DHA supplementation on cognitive outcomes, such as motor development at 30 months of age and attention span at 5 years of age.
- Visual development.A study of 167 pregnant women conducted at the University of British Columbia's Department of Pediatrics suggested a correlation between visual acuity in two-month-old babies and their mother's DHA intake during their second trimester and third trimester of pregnancy. Reviews of other studies have found mixed results, possibly due to differences in how DHA was provided to the pregnant women and how visual acuity was measured.
- Higher birth weight.Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands studied 782 mother-baby pairs and found "significant positive associations" between the mother's DHA levels (especially early in pregnancy) and the baby's weight and head circumference at birth. Other studies suggested that DHA consumption during pregnancy may have a small benefit in reducing the likelihood of repeat preterm birth among women who previously had preterm birth.
How much DHA do you need?
While there are not yet official recommendations on the amount of DHA pregnant women need, a recent review of research published by theJournal of Perinatal Medicineconcluded that pregnant and lactating women need 200 mg of DHA a day; Johnson suggests the same amount.
Sources of DHA
So where can pregnant women get that daily dose of DHA? "Food is best," says Johnson, "so if a woman can, she should start there. Salmon, canned light tuna, and products with added DHA such as eggs and milk are all good options, as are anchovies, herring, sardines, walnuts, and walnut oil. If you'd rather take a DHA supplement, go for one derived from algae rather than fish oil — it'll be gentler on your stomach. (Then you'll be getting your DHA just as the fish do; their source is marine algae.)
Eating Fish Safely
Fish is a fantastic source of DHA, but pregnant and breastfeeding women need to exercise caution. You want to eat enough oily, fatty fish to reap the DHA benefits but not enough to add too much dangerous mercury to your diet (and your baby's). The Institute of Medicine and the Food and Drug Administration make the following recommendations.:
AvoidShark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish
Eat sparingly (6 oz. or less per week)Canned (or packaged) albacore tuna and freshwater fish caught by family and friends
Eat carefully (up to 12 oz. per week)Other seafood, such as shellfish, canned (or packaged) light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish
However, these recommended limitations on seafood consumption during pregnancy have been challenged by a study of over 8,000 pregnant women and their children in the UK. The study found that children of women who ate more than the recommended amount of seafood during pregnancy had higher scores for verbal intelligence, fine motor skills, communication, and social development. This led the investigators to conclude that in terms of early childhood development, the benefits of seafood consumption during pregnancy may outweigh the risks related to mercury. It has yet to be seen whether official recommendations about fish consumption during pregnancy will be modified.
Video: Should Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women Take DHA?
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