moms who ate fish fatty acids had more mature newborns
By Adam Marcus
THURSDAY, Aug. 22 (HealthScoutNews) -- Pregnant women
who eat more of a key fatty acid found in fish have babies
who show signs of more mature brain development, a new
study has found.
Those newborns whose mothers had more of it in their
blood had heartier sleep patterns in the first 48 hours
after delivery compared to those whose mothers consumed
less of the compound, known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Infant sleep patterns are thought to reflect the
maturity of their nervous system, and have been correlated
with more rapid development in their first year of life. A
report on the findings appears in the September issue of
the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
An 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. Indeed, acknowledging the advantages of these
compounds, two of the nation's largest formula makers,
Ross Products and Mead Johnson Nutritionals, announced
earlier this year that they would begin adding them to
The two substances are also passed from mother to fetus
across the placenta. Some 70 percent of brain cell
development takes place during gestation.
In the new 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 percent of their total
circulating fatty acids -- while seven had less than that
Lammi-Keefe's group didn't ask the women about their
diets. None of the subjects in the study had DHA levels
that reflect eating three or more fish meals a week, what
many experts recommend. 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.
All the babies were delivered vaginally, and none of
the women had been given drugs known to make newborns
lethargic, the researchers say.
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
says. "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
The researchers are now organizing a study that will
look at dietary intake of DHA in pregnant women. It will
follow their children over the course of a year to assess
the substance's impact on development. Lammi-Keefe says
she hopes to enroll between 140 and 160 women in the
June Machover Reinisch, director emerita of the Kinsey
Institute and a child development expert, says the
findings seem to echo the importance of breast feeding for
optimal infant growth. However, she notes it's difficult
to draw meaningful conclusions from the research.
After all, many factors, from method of delivery and
the use of anesthesia during labor to the infant's gender,
can influence a newborn's wakefulness.
"We have to be flexible in our definition of
development," Machover Reinisch says. "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 say
there's no way to predict whether a child with less mature
sleeping habits in the first week of life will be anything
other than healthy.
What To Do
For more on fatty acids and infant development, try Infant
Canada. For more on infant sleep states, try Lamaze.com
SOURCES: Carol Lammi-Keefe, Ph.D., R.D., professor,
University of Connecticut, Storrs; June Machover Reinisch,
Ph.D., director emertia, Kinsey Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y.;
September 2002 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition