Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the omega-3 fatty acids, and using DHA supplements during pregnancy is often routinely encouraged. This recommendation results from studies that suggest DHA has a pronounced positive correlation to neurological infant health. Mothers with higher DHA levels may have babies with increased attention span and stronger visual learning skills. Nevertheless, though supplementation is encouraged, it has to be of the right types, or gains from this supplement could become losses.
Much of the mainstream medical community and organizations dedicated to the prevention of birth defects like the March of Dimes issue strong recommendations that women take DHA supplements during pregnancy or eat foods that are supplemented with DHA or contain it naturally. These recommendations stem from increasing understanding that the later fetal and infant brain tends to accumulate DHA in high amounts up until about the second year of life. In infant cognitive testing, it appears that higher levels correspond to higher cognitive abilities, especially in the areas of attention and vision-based learning. This connection is not fully understood, but it appears that DHA amounts spur brain development and growth, at a time when this growth is most active, and this may lead to a healthier and more adept brain in certain learning areas.
These studies have been encouraging enough that doctors don’t just recommend DHA supplements during pregnancy. They suggest continued supplementation for breastfeeding women. A number of formula companies now also include DHA in infant formulas.
It is important to note that not all DHA supplements during pregnancy are recommended. One of the most common sources of omega-3 fatty acids is cod liver oil or other types of fish oil, and these are not usually safe. Fish oil has high levels of vitamin A that can be damaging to the developing fetus. Especially in the early parts of pregnancy, high levels of a fish-based form of vitamin A, which are usually derived from the liver, are linked to birth defects like cleft palate and heart defects. Some women attempt to solve this by eating oily fish like salmon or tuna, but this has another set of problems. DHA in this form means exposure to chemicals like mercury, which can also elevate birth defect risks.
Instead of turning to fish-based DHA supplements during pregnancy, it’s recommended that women use algae based supplements. These are becoming more common and might be present in a prenatal vitamin or sold separately. There are also some food products that are supplemented with DHA, like omega-3 eggs. Doctors usually approve a small amount of fish consumption, too, provided the fish type doesn’t have high mercury levels.
Generally, DHA supplements are recommended. They must be of the right kind to provide the maximum benefit and minimum risk. Presently, physicians suggest getting about 200-300 milligrams of DHA daily during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.