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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Mothers’ DHA Omega-3 Levels Affect Infant Developmental Outcomes

By Julia Bird

Earlier this week, we wrote about how the omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids EPA and DHA are important for cardiovascular health. The evidence base for omega-3 and heart health is strong enough to allow a qualified health claim in the USA and article 13 health claims in the EU. But these healthy fats are also important in other health areas. In particular, DHA is important for the normal development and function of the infant brain, nervous system and eyesight. Maintaining adequate levels of DHA may even translate to better infant sleeping patterns, as some preliminary studies have reported. A recent publication by Zornoza-Moreno and colleagueslooked at the relationship between maternal and infant DHA levels and infant outcomes, and how they associate with gestational diabetes mellitus.

DHA levels in 63 mothers and their infants were quantified and compared to various measures of infant development and sleep patterns. In particular, the widely used Bayley Scale of Infant Development, and the Circadian Function Index (described by Ortiz-Tudela et al.) were used to work out whether DHA levels were associated with infants’ behavior and sleep. It normally takes several months for infants to adjust to life outside the womb and develop circadian rhythms that are in tune with most adults’  normal day/night cycles. Three different groups of women were selected during weeks 24 and 26 gestation for the analyses: healthy controls, women with gestational diabetes managed by diet, and women with gestational diabetes treated with insulin. DHA levels were measured when women were enrolled, on the day of delivery, and in the infants’ cord blood. Infants’ development and sleep was measured at 15 days, as well as at 1, 3 and 6 months.

There were differences between the three groups of women based on many of the characteristics measured at baseline, including DHA levels. DHA was highest in diet-managed diabetic women at recruitment, and delivery, with insulin-treated diabetic and control women having similar levels. The infants of control and diet-managed diabetes was highest in infant cord blood. During the follow-up period, infants of control women fared best in measures of development at six months, compared to infants of women with diabetes, although diet-managed diabetic women tended to have better scores. The authors also looked at whether DHA levels, independent of diabetes status, affected development. They found that higher cord blood DHA was associated with improved psychomotor development and a better circadian rhythm at six months. Higher maternal DHA levels at recruitment were also linked to better sleep rhythm maturation at six months in the infants.

This study is observational, and this means that while DHA levels in both infants and their mothers were associated with better infant development and sleep, other factors may be responsible for the link. Even so, many experts recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women get adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Meeting nutrient intake recommendations is always a good idea. For example, Greenberg, Bell and Ausdal found that omega-3 intakes in pregnant women are often inadequate, and recommend that pregnant women consume omega-3 rich fatty fish that is low in mercury, and take EPA/DHA supplements to meet enhanced needs during pregnancy.


Main citation:

Zornoza-Moreno M, Fuentes-Hernández S, Carrión V, Alcántara-López MV, Madrid JA, López-Soler C, Sánchez-Solís M, Larqué E. Is low docosahexaenoic acid associated with disturbed rhythms and neurodevelopment in offsprings of diabetic mothers? Eur J Clin Nutr. 2014 Aug;68(8):931-7. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2014.104. Epub 2014 Jun 11.


Supporting citations:

Greenberg, James A., Stacey J. Bell, and Wendy Van Ausdal. "Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy." Reviews in obstetrics and gynecology 1.4 (2008): 162.

Judge MP, Cong X, Harel O, Courville AB, Lammi-Keefe CJ. Maternal consumption of a DHA-containing functional food benefits infant sleep patterning: an early neurodevelopmental measure. Early Hum Dev. 2012 Jul;88(7):531-7. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2011.12.016. Epub 2012 Jan 24.

Ortiz-Tudela E, Martinez-Nicolas A, Campos M, Rol MÁ, Madrid JA. A new integrated variable based on thermometry, actimetry and body position (TAP) to evaluate circadian system status in humans. PLoS Comput Biol. 2010 Nov 11;6(11):e1000996. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000996.