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Regular omega-3 intake during pregnancy could boost baby brain and vision: Study

Nathan Gray

Omega-3 and infant brain health

Women could enhance the development of their unborn child's eyesight and brain function by regularly eating omega-3 rich fatty fish during pregnancy, say researchers from Finland.


The long chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA - found in fish and seafood, but very few other foods - is absolutely essential for normal visual and cognitive development, but seriously lacking from modern. western-type diets.

The benefits for their children's brain development of mothers eating fish and seafood in pregnancy were made clear in a landmark study in the Lancet, 2007 - which showed that the more fish and seafood mothers ate during pregnancy, the better were the outcomes for their children - in terms of IQ, social skills, motor skills and behaviour. See:

This study showed that US dietary recommendations at the time, for pregnant women to limit their fish and seafood to 2 portions a week,(owing to misplaced concerns about possible harms from mercury) were actually causing harm to their unborn children. 

Omega-3 DHA is particularly critical for vision - as this fatty acid needs to make up 30-50% of the retina. 

This new study - from Finland - once again shows significant benefits for vision and brain function in the children of mothers who ate more than 2 portions a week of fish during their pregnancy, compared with those who ate less, or none.

For anyone unwilling or unable to eat fish and seafood, supplements can provide DHA - and a minmum intake of 200mg/day is recommended by international authorities during pregnancy.  Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of UK and US women still fail to meet these guidelines - so clearly more needs to be done to raise awareness of the importance of doing so.

And the nutritional benefits of fish and seafood also extend beyond long-chain omega-3 (as the authors of this study note) - because fish is also an excellent source of other key brain nutrients - particularly iodine, selenium and Vitamin D (all of which are found in few other foods), as well as B vitamins and high-quality protein.

Read the underlying research here:

The same research is also covered in this article.

For more information on the benefits of fish and seafood during pregnancy, see:

Women could enhance the development of their unborn child's eyesight and brain function by regularly eating omega-3 rich fatty fish during pregnancy, say researchers from Finland.

The small-scale study, published in Pediatric Research, supports previous research that demonstrates the importance of diet and lifestyle during pregnancy on the development of a baby – finding that adjusting the diet of healthy pregnant women to include higher levels of omega-3 could be beneficial to their babies.

"The results of our study suggest that frequent fish consumption by pregnant women is of benefit for their unborn child's development. This may be attributable to long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids within fish, but also due to other nutrients like vitamin D and E, which are also important for development," explained Kirsi Laitinen of the University of Turku and Turku University Hospital in Finland.

According to Laitinen, a mother's diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding is the main way that valuable long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids become available to a foetus and infant brain during the period of maximum brain growth during the first years of a child's life. Such fatty acids help to shape the nerve cells that are relevant to eyesight and particularly the retina. They are also important in forming the synapses that are vital in the transport of messages between neurons in the nervous system.

"Our study therefore highlights the potential importance of subtle changes in the diet of healthy women with uncompromised pregnancies, beyond prematurity or nutritional deficiencies, in regulating infantile neurodevelopment," said Laitinen – who believes that their results should be incorporated into counselling given to pregnant women about their diets. 

Study details

The Finnish research team analysed the results of 56 mothers and their children drawn from a larger study. As part of the study mothers had to keep a regular food diary during the course of their pregnancy. Fluctuations in weight before and during pregnancy were taken into account, along with their blood sugar level and blood pressure. Aspects such as whether they smoked or developed diabetes related to pregnancy were also noted.

The team recorded the levels of nutritional long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid sources in the mother's diet, in addition to measures of blood serum, and the levels in the blood of their children by the age of one month.

Children were also tested around their second birthday using pattern reversal visual evoked potentials (pVEP) – a sensitive and accurate, non-invasive method that used to detect visual functioning and maturational changes occurring within a young child's visual system.

Analysis of these test results showed that infants whose mothers ate fish three or more times a week during the last trimester of their pregnancy fared better than those whose mothers ate no fish or only up to two portions per week.

These observations were further substantiated when the serum phospholipid fatty acid status was evaluated, said the team.