In a recent study it was found that infants of mothers who were given omega 3 fatty acid DHA during pregnancy weighed more and was born before 34 weeks gestation.
This result of this University of Kansas study greatly strengthens the case for using the dietary supplement, commonly found in marine and plant oils, during pregnancy.
The results are from the first five years of a 10-year, double-blind randomized controlled trial.
A follow-up of this sample of infants is ongoing to determine whether prenatal DHA nutritional supplementation will benefit children's intelligence and school readiness.
"A reduction in early preterm and very low birth weight delivery could have clear clinical and public health significance," said Susan Carlson, A.J. Rice Professor of Dietetics and Nutrition at the KU Medical Center, who directed the study with John Colombo, KU professor of psychology and director of the Life Span Institute.
DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) occurs naturally in cell membranes with the highest levels in brain cells, but levels can be increased by diet or supplements. An infant obtains DHA from his or her mother in utero and postnatally from human milk, but the amount received depends upon the mother's DHA status.
During the first five years of the study, children of women enrolled in the study received multiple developmental assessments at regular intervals throughout infancy and at 18 months of age.
In the next phase of the study, the children will receive twice-yearly assessments until they are 6 years old. The researchers will measure developmental milestones that occur in later childhood and are linked to lifelong health and welfare.
Previous research has established the effects of postnatal feeding of DHA on infant cognitive and intellectual development, but DHA is accumulated most rapidly in the fetal brain during pregnancy, said Colombo.
"That's why we are so interested in the effects of DHA taken prenatally, because we will really be able to see how this nutrient affects development over the long term," he added.
The results will appear in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.