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Omega 3 Supplements In Pregnancy, Maybe Not So Necessary

Pregnant women are often encouraged to take fish oil supplements, as the high content of the omega 3 fatty acid DHA, is considered beneficial to a baby’s cognitive development.

But a new study suggests that these supplements have no impact on a baby’s development, nor do they reduce the chances for postpartum depression in most women. (Some women who are at high risk for postpartum depression may benefit, however.)

The study, which included over 2000 women, was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association yesterday.

Dr. William Barth Jr., chief of maternal-fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital is quoted in the New York Times saying, “I think a lot of us have been skeptical that something as easy as taking a DHA supplement would improve neurologic development. I wish it were so simple, that there was a pill we could take to make our children smarter.” He agrees with others that we need more research.

The take-away seems to be that taking a pill to “boost” a child’s intelligence a few points on the IQ test is not really necessary. But there’s certainly no harm in keeping up your omega-3s in pregnancy and there is some evidence that DHA is good for brains. A couple of studies have shown that babies born prematurely have too little DHA, and DHA supplements in early infancy can help with some cognitive development.

This study found no difference in full term babies’ cognitive  development at 18 months whether mothers received DHA supplements or placebos. But experts, including the authors of the study, wonder whether 18 months is too soon to evaluate cognitive ability. Other research has shown benefits of DHA in 4 year-olds but not infants or older children.  Another missing piece of the puzzle is the difference between a supplement and Omega-3 rich foods such as salmon. There is still a lot to be learned in this area. who already ate lots of fish.

As someone who prefers to—when in doubt—do less rather than more, I find this reassuring news. I think the desire to have a healthy pregnancy and do the best for your baby is a completely natural way to feel. But sometimes that normal desire is manipulated (by books, media, medical authorities, advertisers) into an anxiety about “maximizing” or “optimizing” fetal development.  This can undermine our basic trust in ourselves and our bodies and our babies which is no fun.  Maybe this study can help diffuse some of that tension.

photo: stephen cummings/flickr

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