Pregnant? Get Fatty Acids for Baby’s Brain Development
July 31, 2008—Premature babies are at risk for complications in their mental development, but new evidence shows that their brains may get a boost from fatty acids: A study in Pediatrics reports that breast milk supplemented with omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and omega-6 AA (arachidonic acid) may improve brain development in premature infants.
DHA and AA are two types of fatty acids essential for many bodily functions including brain, eye, and nervous system development. The optimal amounts of these fatty acids for premature infants has not been determined, but researchers suggest that increasing the amounts in early infancy may reduce the risk of developmental problems later in life.
Learning disabilities and school-related problems are more common among premature infants than full-term infants. Prior studies, however, have shown that premature infants who are breast-fed have higher IQs than babies receiving formula milk. This finding was attributed to higher concentrations of DHA found in human milk compared with formula milk. The authors of the new study considered the possibility that increasing the DHA content of human milk and adding AA could further improve preemies’ brain development.
Study results encouraging
In the study, 141 premature infants weighing less than 1,500 grams (about 3 pounds) were randomly assigned to receive human breast milk supplemented with either 32 mg of DHA and 31 mg of AA per 100 ml of milk, or breast milk supplemented with soy oil and medium-chain triglyceride oil. Infants received more than 100 ml of human milk per kilogram of body weight per day beginning on the first or second day of birth and continuing until discharge from the hospital (an average of nine weeks).
At six months of age, infants who received the human milk supplemented with DHA and AA were better at problem-solving and were better able to discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar objects compared with infants in the control group.
“There is growing evidence that DHA and AA have specific functions related to memory and problem-solving,” said Christine Henriksen, PhD, lead author of the study from the Department of Nutrition at the University of Oslo, Norway. Dr. Henriksen and her colleagues point out that these functions are critical for being able to focus, be attentive, learn, and process information. Further research is needed to understand the long-term impact of supplementing with fatty acids on school performance and attention capacity later in life.
Ensure you eat your EFAs
Babies are dependent on breast milk and/or fortified formula milk for DHA and AA, but there are other important sources of essential fatty acids (EFAs) to consider as the child grows older. In addition, recent research has shown that it is important for pregnant women to eat plenty of fatty acids in order to help optimize their baby’s brain function. You can find them in these sources:
• Fatty fish such as salmon, halibut, and tuna are good sources of DHA, which is also found in smaller amounts in eggs. Pregnant women should balance the need for fatty acids from fish with reducing exposure to mercury by limiting the amount of fish they eat and avoiding fish high in mercury content.
• AA is found in meat, chicken, and eggs.
• Some people may benefit from supplements that contain fatty acids. Check with your doctor about the appropriateness of using supplements to further enrich your diet.
Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.
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