Dutch study finds better motor skills in 7-year-old kids whose mothers’ blood was high in omega-3s at birth
by Craig Weatherby
The striking results of research published early in 2007 affirmed prior indications that higher fish consumption by pregnant and nursing mothers benefits their children’s development.
Specifically, the children of mothers who ate more fish than is advised under US guidelines (12 oz per week) scored higher on tests of intelligence, social and verbal skills, and showed greater physical dexterity, compared with the children of mothers who ate less fish than US guidelines allow.
(See “Findings Verify Safety and Value of Higher Maternal Fish Intake”.)
Now, the results of a study from Holland suggest that children develop better motor skills when their mothers’ blood is higher in omega-3 DHA at time of birth (Bakker EC et al 2007).
DHA is the fish-borne omega-3 that occurs very abundantly in human brains and eyes, and it's the omega-3 fat considered most essential for proper child development.
Fetuses get their DHA from their mothers, so maternal intake of DHA during pregnancy is crucial.
And as the Dutch found, a pregnant woman’s DHA intake “…can have an effect on quality of movement in later life” (Bakker EC et al 2007).
These findings support similar results from Australia, which showed that the children of mothers who took fish oil supplements during pregnancy developed better hand-eye coordination (Dunstan JA et al 2006).
Omega-3s and child development
The Italian authors of a recent evidence review summarized the science on fats in fetal and child development: “…an optimal balance in omega-3/omega-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio is important for proper neurodevelopment and cognitive functions…” (Assisi A et al 2006).
This is why the US FDA approved addition of omega-3 DHA and omega-6 AA (arachidonic acid)—the most important fatty acids for brain development—to infant formulas.
(As one would expect, given the naturally high concentration of omega-3 DHA in mothers’ milk, here seems to be little developmental difference seen between breastfed children and children who receive omega-3-supplemented formula.)
Research into children's behavior and intelligence demonstrates that pregnant and nursing women who consume relatively small amounts of omega-3s from fish may prevent optimal brain and visual development in their children.
But much remains to be learned. In 2003, the Dutch authors behind the new motor-skills study probed the connection between maternal blood levels of omega-3s and their children’s mental performance at age seven. Unlike the new study of motor skills, the earlier Dutch study did not detect any brain-development advantages in children born to mothers with higher-than-average blood levels of omega-3s (Bakker EC et al 2003).
And considered as a whole, the results of clinical trials conducted to date do not prove that children benefit measurably when their mothers take omega-3 supplements. As the Italian authors put it, “…results from randomized controlled trials are controversial and do not confirm any useful effect of [omega-3] supplementation [in mothers] on development of preterm and term infants” (Assisi A et al 2006).
Two exceptions to this generally negative picture are the Australian hand-eye study cited above (Dunstan JA et al 2006), and clinical evidence that supplemental omega-3s can enhance the visual acuity of infants born prematurely (Cheatham CL et al 2006).
The new results from the Netherlands suggest that maternal diets high in omega-3s might confer a benefit in terms of ensuring development of optimal coordination, and should prompt further studies, with longer follow-up periods.
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