Maternal omega-3 rich-diet linked to improved infant problem solving: Study

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

In the last trimester of pregnancy and in the first years of life, our brain undergoes enormous growth, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is particularly important for the development of the brain in infants. Photo: Veronica Nagelsen / Marine Research Institute
In the last trimester of pregnancy and in the first years of life, our brain undergoes enormous growth, and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA is particularly important for the development of the brain in infants. Photo: Veronica Nagelsen / Marine Research Institute
The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids were highlighted again in a Norwegian study that demonstrates the positive effect a maternal diet rich in the oil can have on a child’s problem-solving abilities.

The researcher’s findings suggest that a mother’s intake of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in pregnancy was associated with an infant’s skill in problem solving at 12 months.

"We see a clear connection between mother's omega-3 status and the children's ability to solve problems, and the same effect we see at the child's level of fatty acids when they are three months,"​ explained study researcher and research scientist at the Institute of Marine Research, Maria Wik Markhus.

Since higher problem-solving scores in infancy are related to higher childhood IQ scores, the study emphasises the importance of adequate DHA intake before the rapid growth of infant brains during the last trimester of pregnancy.

“The level of DHA decreases in pregnancy and after birth,” ​added Markhus. “It is therefore important for pregnant women to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, either through diet as fat fish or by dietary supplements.”

The findings correlate well with recent work that looks into the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acid consumption during pregnancy on child development.

A UK study​ found that maternal seafood intakes of more than 340 grams (g) per week decreased the risk of their children being in the lowest quartile for verbal intelligence quotient (IQ), when compared with mothers who consumed less than 340 g per week.

Indeed, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recommends pregnant and lactating women to take 100-200 milligrams (mg) of DHA per day in addition to general adult requirements.

Maternal & Infant Nutrition conference

How are new scientific discoveries and emerging areas of research impacting innovation and NPD in infant nutrition? How can manufacturers meet the specific needs of infants and mothers? And how can we all do more to make sure the industry and parents understand and follow WHO guidelines? NutraIngredients will explore the answers to these questions and more in our online conference on 5 July.

From conception to early childhood – the first 1,000 days of life are vital for shaping the health of the next generation for a lifetime. While the health of mum both before, during, and after pregnancy is also vital for providing long-term wellness to growing children.

Starting at 11.00am CET / 10.00am BST this free-to-attend online conference​ will explore the ever-growing science, and regulatory frameworks, for infant formula, and ask what industry and researchers alike are doing to innovate beyond formula.

Study details

The omega-3 study enrolled 32 pregnant women, who had levels of omega-3 fatty acid DHA in the blood measured in pregnancy week 28. The next stage of the research then looked at the children's level of DHA, which was recorded at three, six and twelve months old.

At one-years old, the children were then assessed for their problem solving skills, which the team assessed using a form called Ages & Stage Questionnaires.

The questionnaire is a parent-based tool that maps children's development in five areas: communication, rough motor, fine motorics, problem-solving skills, and personal / social development.

It is based on questions that parents should answer or perform with the children. Examples of questions are, "If the child holds a small game in each hand, does it play the toys together?"

One further example asks, "After you have hidden a little play under a piece of paper or cloth while the child is watching, does the child find the game?"

As well as maternal DHA status’ positive association with infants’ problem-solving skills at 12 months, this association remained significant even after controlling for the level of maternal education, a surrogate for socio-economic status.

Additional results found the infants’ DHA status at three months was associated with the infants’ problem solving at 12 months.

"We saw an increasing curve on the children who had the most omega-3, both as a foetus and at three months,"​ said Markhus.

"Although our selection is small, we still have enough spread and variation in the participants so that we can draw the conclusion,"​ says Markhus.

'A wealth of supporting data'

Commenting on the study, a source for NutraIngredients said that it was interesting that infant problem-solving scores at 12 months were significantly correlated with both maternal pre-partum and infant three-month DHA levels.

"However, it is difficult to get too excited when there's no explanation for the lack of statistical correlation between infant problem solving scores at 12 months and DHA levels at six and 12 month follow-up,” ​the source added.

"Despite the present results, there is a wealth of data supporting the benefits of prenatal DHA supplementation for infant visual and cognitive development."

Source: Nutrients

Published online ahead of print: doi:10.3390/nu10050529

“Maternal DHA Status during Pregnancy Has a Positive Impact on Infant Problem Solving: A Norwegian Prospective Observation Study.”

Authors: Hanne Cecilie Braarud, Maria Wik Markhus, Siv Skotheim, Kjell Morten Stormark, Livar Frøyland, Ingvild Eide Graff and Marian Kjellevold

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