Taking fish oil during pregnancy may ensure a smarter, more focused child

MUNICH, Germany — Mothers-to-be who want their kids to get good grades in school should take fish oil while pregnant, a study suggests. Children exposed to the benefits of fish oil in the womb had faster problem-solving skills, better attention focus, and a stronger memory at age ten and beyond.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, is the primary structural component of the human brain, skin, and retina and is found in fish oil, breast milk, and algae oil. Health professionals advise mothers to not consume cod liver oil, which contains retinol, as in high doses it can harm the unborn baby.

Previous studies show that if a pregnant woman does not have enough DHA in her system, her brain size will even shrink during pregnancy because the fetus will take what it needs to develop and nourish its own. This may be the reason why women often report feeling forgetful, otherwise known as “baby brain.”

Researchers across Europe assessed 57 children at age ten using specialist MRI scanning to measure the resting functioning of their brains. Women who had taken 500mg of DHA and 150mg of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) fish oils per day had children with far stronger cognitive abilities than those women who had been given a placebo. Folic acid supplementation did not lead to appreciable modification of brain function measures. The researchers said while the sample size was small, a large number of validated techniques had been used on a group that had been followed for a long time.

“The results demonstrate that the quality of maternal nutrient supply during the period of rapid early brain development in pregnancy has a lasting impact on later brain function at school age. Therefore, women before and during pregnancy should be supported in achieving a good quality diet and be counseled on potential fish oil supplement use,” says Berthold Koletzko, Head of the Division of Metabolic and Nutritional Medicine at Dr. von Hauner Children’s Hospital at the University of Munich Medical Center, in a statement.

“Our research provides evidence that children born to mothers who had taken fish oil during the second half of pregnancy had improved memory,” adds Professor Christina Campoy, coordinator of the study and director of the EURISTIKOS Excellence Centre for Pediatric Research at the University of Granada. “Fish oil supplementation was associated with lesser functional connectivity of children’s brain networks, but this did not indicate poor cognitive neurodevelopment, rather the opposite.”

The findings were presented in 2021 at the World Congress of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.