If I ask a pregnant patient whether she wants a boy or a girl, she is likely to answer: Either is fine. I just want my baby to be healthy. The results of a study conducted at Emory University shines a light on how to make my pregnant patient’s dream come true. When pregnant women take 400 mg of DHA (found in fish oil or extracted from algae) during pregnancy, they deliver children who have fewer colds and related symptoms in the first six months of life.
The study followed nearly 1,100 pregnant women and more than 800 infants in Mexico. The women were given either 400 mg of DHA or a placebo from 18 to 22 weeks gestation through the end of their pregnancy.
After childbirth, the mothers were asked to keep a diary about any symptom of illness their baby had for the first six months of life. They also completed questionnaires about their baby’s health at one, three, and six months of age.
All the infants were breastfed. Not surprisingly, the mothers who took DHA had more of it in their breast milk than the moms in the group given a placebo.
Researchers determined that the infants whose mothers took DHA supplements were 24% less likely to have cold symptoms at one month of age. The authors concluded, “DHA supplementation during pregnancy decreased the occurrence of colds in children at one month and influenced illness symptom duration at one, three, and six months.”
Here is a summary of the findings. When compared to the placebo group:
• At one month of age: 24% fewer colds; shorter duration of cough, phlegm, and wheezing.
• At three months of age: 14% less time showing signs of illness.
• At six months: shorter duration of fever, runny nose, difficult breathing, rash, and “other illness.”
It was not all positive results for the DHA group, though. These babies suffered slightly more rashes and significantly more vomiting.
According to lead author Usha Ramakrishnan, Ph.D., “This is a large scale, robust study that underscores the importance of good nutrition during pregnancy. Our findings indicate that pregnant women taking 400 mg of DHA are more likely to deliver healthier infants.”
Dr. Ramakrishnan previously reported on research showing that the birth weight and head circumference was greater in babies whose mothers took 400 mg of DHA during the pregnancy with their first child. These same children were also taller at 18 months.
I have known for decades that eating a healthy diet during pregnancy is good for both the baby’s and mother’s health. Twenty or thirty years ago, research proved the importance of getting enough calcium during pregnancy to protect mom’s bones, especially long-term. More recent studies have shown the importance of getting enough folic acid (for prevention of birth defects) and iron (for keeping the blood oxygenated and nutrient-rich)..
I began prescribing DHA to pregnant women in the late 1990’s as the evidence in the medical literature was already strong then. Thank goodness that in the last ten years, many more studies have shown that one of the active ingredients in fish oil or algae, DHA, is good for babies brain, eye, and immune system development. This is why baby formulas are finally being supplemented with DHA now. DHA has also been show to support immune function. This is the first study to link a mother’s intake of DHA during pregnancy to her child’s immune system, though.
If you are pregnant, I strongly recommend you speak with your physician and obstetrician about the benefits of supplementing with fish oil. Start now eating right and taking the right supplements for your baby. You will be glad you did.
Beth Imhoff-Kunsch, Aryeh D. Stein, Reynaldo Martorell, Socorro Parra-Cabrera, Isabelle Romieu, and Usha Ramakrishnan. Prenatal Docosahexaenoic Acid Supplementation and Infant Morbidity: Randomized Controlled Trial. Pediatrics, September, 2011, published online August 1, 2011: 10.1542/peds.2010-1386.
Ramakrishnan U, Stein AD, Parra-Cabrera S, Wang M, Imhoff-Kunsch B, Juárez-Márquez S, Rivera J, Martorell R. Effects of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy on gestational age and size at birth: randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in Mexico. Food Nutr Bull. 2010 Jun;31(2 Suppl):S108-16.