Fish fatty acids linked to mature brain development in infants
Apr 15, 2009 16:30
Pregnant women who eat more of a key fatty acid found in fish give
their babies better chances of mature brain development, finds a new
study in the September issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The study also found that mothers with more docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
in their blood had babies with heartier sleep patterns in the first 48
hours after delivery compared to those whose mothers consumed less of
In a report on the study, Healthscoutnews noted that infant sleep
patterns are thought to reflect the maturity of a child's nervous
system, and have been associated with more rapid development in their
first year of life.
The omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, along with another substance,
arachidonic acid (AA), are key building blocks in breast milk that
contribute to healthy brain and eye development. Infant formula makers,
such as Ross Products and Mead Johnson Nutritionals, are beginning to
recognise the value of the compounds and have said they will add them
to some of their brands.
The two substances are also passed from mother to foetus across the
placenta. Some 70 per cent of brain cell development takes place during
In the study, Carol Lammi-Keefe and her colleagues at the University
of Connecticut compared DHA levels and newborn sleep patterns in 17
women and their babies. Ten of the women had high blood concentrations
of DHA - considered to be more than 3 per cent of their total
circulating fatty acids - while seven had less than that amount.
Healthscoutnews noted that Lammi-Keefe's group did not ask the women
about their diets. None of the subjects in the study had DHA levels
that reflected eating fish more than three times a week, as recommended
by many experts. Other foods, like eggs and red meat, contain modest
amounts of the nutrient, but cold-water fish such as tuna and mackerel
are considered the best source.
Women with low DHA were more likely to be minorities and to have
received fewer years of education. They were also five years younger,
on average, than those in the high DHA category - 24 versus 29 years,
according to the report.
All the babies were delivered vaginally, and none of the women had
been given drugs known to make newborns lethargic, the researchers
Using a motion-sensing pad to measure breathing and movement during
sleep cycles, the researchers found babies of women in the low-DHA
group had less advanced sleeping patterns than the other infants. They
had a greater ratio of "active" to "quiet" sleep, spent more time
transitioning between sleeping and waking, and spent less time fully
awake than those of women with higher blood levels of the fatty acid.
"As an infant matures, normally you would see the infant spending more time in a wakeful state," Lammi-Keefe said. "Infants
born to mothers with more DHA have sleep characteristics of a more
mature central nervous system compared with the infants of mothers with
lower DHA levels."
June Machover Reinisch, director emerita of the Kinsey Institute and a
child development expert, said the findings seemed to echo the
importance of breast feeding for optimal infant growth, although she
noted that many other factors, from method of delivery and the use of
anesthesia during labour to the infant's gender, can influence a
"We have to be flexible in our definition of development," Machover Reinisch said. "With
the child who sleeps not as well at two days, it may be related to the
DHA, but it doesn't necessarily mean that there's going to be a problem
with that child."
Researchers have correlated newborn sleep states with performance on
mental and motor developmental tests at 9 months of age. However, both
Lammi-Keefe and Reinisch said there is no way to predict whether a
child with less mature sleeping habits in the first week of life will
be anything other than healthy.
The researchers are currently organising a one-year study to investigate dietary intake of DHA in pregnant women.
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