Ask-the-Expert: Can DHA supplementation help to reduce the risk of preterm birth?

By:  Talking Nutrition Editors



  • Globally, 1 in 10 babies are born preterm every year and preterm birth rates are rising in many countries.1,2,3,4
  • Research has found that intake of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, is associated with a reduced risk of preterm birth.5
  • In our latest Ask-the-Expert interview, Dr. Kristen Finn, Registered Dietitian and Lead Scientist for Early Life Nutrition at dsm-firmenich, explains how DHA can help expectant mothers reduce their risk of preterm birth.

Watch the interview with Dr. Kristen Finn, Lead Scientist for Early Life Nutrition at dsm-firmenich, for exclusive expert insights on the role of DHA in supporting healthy, full-term pregnancies for expectant mothers.

What are the risks surrounding preterm birth?

Globally, 15 million babies are born preterm every year. Preterm birth rates worldwide range from 5% to 18% and average around 11% – and these figures continue to rise.6, 7, 8 Families in low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected, even though premature births are a growing problem in the developed world too. 9

As Dr. Finn explains, preterm birth is the leading cause of death in children under five years of age, with more than one million babies around the world dying each year due to problems associated with prematurity. 10 Even among survivors, there could be long-term consequences such as retinopathy of prematurity, chronic respiratory diseases and impaired neurodevelopment.11, 12

What is DHA and how is it related to the risk of preterm birth?

Most commonly derived from fatty fish, DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that has been linked to a range of maternal health benefits. 

Touching on some of the clinical evidence for DHA’s role in supporting healthy pregnancies, Dr. Finn shares how several population cohort studies have reported associations between fish consumption before or during pregnancy and a reduced risk of preterm birth. For instance, one study of omega-3 fatty acid intake and preterm birth rates across 184 countries found that preterm birth rates decreased linearly as omega-3 fatty acid intake levels increased – up to a threshold of about 600mg omega-3 per day. 13

In addition, a 2018 Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis of data from thousands of women determined that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation was effective in lowering the risk of preterm birth. Compared to a placebo, daily omega-3 supplementation during pregnancy significantly reduced the risk of preterm birth at less than 37 weeks gestation by 11% and early preterm birth at less than 34 weeks gestation by 42%. 14

Are women getting enough DHA to reduce preterm birth risk?

Despite the significant benefits of omega-3s like DHA, 96% of the global population falls below the optimal intake range.15 Because DHA is mainly found in seafood, Dr. Finn points out that even a nutrient-dense diet does not always ensure an adequate nutritional intake. Concerns about mercury and other contaminants may also lead some women to consume less seafood during pregnancy. 

Approximately 90% of pregnant women currently consume a prenatal vitamin during pregnancy, but DHA supplementation rates remain much lower. 16, 17  To help reduce the risk of preterm birth, prenatal supplements including sufficient levels of DHA could provide invaluable support. 

What can women do to reduce their risk of having a preterm birth?

Dr. Finn suggests that women can first make sure they have adequate DHA intake prior to becoming pregnant. Recent clinical trials have demonstrated that women with low DHA blood status early in pregnancy have a higher risk of preterm birth compared to those with adequate status. 18, 19, 20 A new expert clinical practice guideline recommends women of childbearing age – especially those trying to get pregnant – should have a regular omega-3 intake of at least 250mg per day (as DHA+EPA or DHA alone). (Cetin 2023)

During pregnancy, women need an additional 100-200mg of DHA (total of 350-450mg DHA +EPA or DHA alone).  Women who have low omega-3 intake or status early in pregnancy benefit from even higher doses of 600-1000mg omega-3 (as DHA+EPA or DHA alone). (Cetin 2023)

How can dsm-firmenich support companies in developing products that meet these prenatal nutritional needs?

Reducing the risk of premature birth can help babies lead longer, healthier lives – and DHA has an important role to play. Many mothers – especially those with busy modern lifestyles – find it challenging to meet their nutritional requirements. To cater to their evolving needs, dsm-firmenich offers a range of purpose-led maternal nutrition solutions, including end-to-end support to take your new product to market with speed.

dsm-firmenich’s enhanced life’s™ portfolio features clinically studied DHA that delivers the essential building blocks needed to create a healthy future for mom and baby. life’sDHA® is 100% plant-based, environmentally sustainable with reduced impact on marine ecosystems, non-GMO and free from marine contaminants. 

At dsm-firmenich, it is our goal to help support healthy, full-term pregnancies for millions of pregnant women and their newborns around the world. Want to learn more about the role of maternal nutrition through the different stages of motherhood? Read our new whitepaper to learn about the maternal nutrition challenges faced by women worldwide and explore the latest science and nutrition solutions to meet prenatal, pregnancy and postnatal needs.

Published on

16 November 2022


5 min read

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  1.   Blencowe et al. National, regional and worldwide estimates of preterm birth, Lancet, vol. 9 no. 379(9832), pp. 2162-72, 2012.
  2.   March of Dimes, 2012.
  3.   World Health Organization. Preterm birth, 2018.
  4.   Wilani. Global burden of preterm birth. Int J Gynecol Obstet, vol. 150, pp. 31-33, 2020.
  5.   Middleton et al. Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, vol. 11, no. CD003402, 2018.
  6.   Op. cit. (Blencowe et al.).
  7.   Op. cit. (March of Dimes).
  8.   Op. cit. (World Health Organization).
  9.   Walani et al. Global burden of preterm birth, International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, vol. 150, no. 1, pp. 31-33, 2020.
  10.   Op. cit. (World Health Organization).
  11.   Liu et al. Global, regional, and national causes of under-5 mortality in 2000-15: an updated systematic analysis with implications for the Sustainable Development Goals, Lancet, vol. 388, no. 10063, pp. 3027-35, 2016.
  12.   Shapiro-Mendoza et al. CDC Grans Rounds: Public Health Strategies to Prevent Preterm Birth, MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, vol. 65, pp. 826-30, 2016.
  13.   Ciesielski et al. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake norms and preterm birth rate: a cross-sectional analysis of 184 countries, BMJ open, vol. 9, no. 4, e027249, 2019.
  14.   Middleton et al. Omega-3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2018, vol. 11, no. CD003402, 2018.
  15.   Stark et al., ‘Global survey of the omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic  acid and eicosapentaenoic acid in the blood stream of healthy adults’, Progress in Lipid Research, 2016; doi: 10.1016/j.plipres.2016.05.001.
  16.   Bailey et al. Estimation of total usual dietary intakes of pregnant women in the United States. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(6):e195967.
  17.   Nordgren et al. Omega-3 fatty acid intake of pregnant women and women of childbearing age in the United States: potential for deficiency? Nutrients. 2017;9(3):197.
  18.   Olsen et al. Examining the Effect of Fish Oil Supplementation in Chinese Pregnant Women on Gestation Duration and Risk of Preterm Delivery, The Journal of nutrition, vol. 149, no. 11, pp. 1942–1951, 2019.
  19.   Carlson et al. Higher dose docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy and early preterm birth: A randomised, double-blind, adaptive-design superiority trial, EClinicalMedicine, vol. 36, no. 100905, 2021.
  20.   Simmonds et al. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in pregnancy-baseline omega-3 status and early preterm birth: exploratory analysis of a randomised controlled trial, BJOG : an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology, vol. 127, no. 8, pp. 975–981, 2020.
  21.   Op. cit. (Ciesielski et al). 
  22.   The Global Organisation for EPA and DHA, Omega-3 Ingredient Market Report, 2019.
  23.   European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), EFSA Journal, vol. 9, no.4, 2078, 2011.
  24.   Op. cit. (Ciesielski et al).
  25.   European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), EFSA Journal, vol. 9, no.4, 2078, 2011.
  26.   Op. cit. (Carlson et al).
  27.   Op. cit. (Simmonds et al). 

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