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Pregnant? Omega-3 Essential for Baby's Brain

Advanced Attention Span in Babies Whose Mothers Eat More Essential Fats
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WebMD Health News

July 16, 2004 -- Research has suggested that increasing intake of dietary omega-3 fatty acids may have a number of health benefits. And babies whose diets include an abundance of essential fats seem to have an edge in terms of early development. Now new research shows that the same is true for infants born to mothers whose diets contain plenty of this essential fatty acid.

Researchers found that infants born to mothers with higher blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) at delivery had advanced levels of attention spans well into their second year of life. During the first six months of life, these infants were two months ahead of those babies whose mothers had lower DHA levels.

Attention is considered an important, but not the only, component of intelligence early in life, lead researcher John Colombo, PhD, tells WebMD.

"This adds to the mounting evidence that DHA plays an important part in brain development," he says.

DHA is important for the developing brain, which accumulates large amounts of it during the first two years of life. Compared to the rest of the body, the brain and nervous system contains very high levels of DHA but its exact role in the brain is not fully known.

Advantages Lasted

DHA is found naturally in breast milk and is now available in infant formulas and some baby foods. Atlantic salmon, Pacific cod fish, and tuna are some of the best food sources of the omega- 3 fatty acid, but algae-derived DHA supplements are also now available.

The study involved some 70 mothers and infants. At the ages of 4-, 6-, and 8-months of age, the babies were tested for visual learning ability. The testing involved showing them pictures and recording their reactions.

"We know from past research that when we show babies pictures during the first year of life, as they get older they look less and less," Colombo says. "The reason is that they are taking in the information faster as they develop."

Babies born to mothers who had higher blood levels of DHA scored better on the attention tests until 6 months of age, and they scored better on different tests designed to measure visual learning in older babies at 1 year and 18 months. The findings are reported in the July/August issue of the journal Child Development.

Not So Fishy Food Sources

While Colombo says he encourages his pregnant friends to add salmon to their diets, he adds that it is not yet clear how much DHA a woman needs during pregnancy. He hopes to answer this question in future studies with nutritionist and co-author Susan Carlson, PhD.

"What we can say right now is that authorities are concerned that pregnant women are not getting enough omega-3 in their diets," Carlson tells WebMD. "A number of observational studies suggests a link between DHA levels during pregnancy and a baby's behavioral performance."

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