Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA ) is an omega-3 fatty acid critical to brain development. Prenatal DHA supplements are considered by most doctors to be essential for both the development of the baby and to protect the health of the mom, especially when taken in the third trimester. This fatty acid helps the baby’s brain develop and reduces the risk of preterm labor and postpartum depression (PPD). Prenatal DHA also carries some risks, including ingesting too much mercury and developing hexane poisoning.
Studies from 2003 and 2004 gave way to DHA being added to foods and infant formula, as well as prenatal DHA supplements being strongly suggested by doctors for pregnant women. The study from 2003 showed that 4-year-old children whose mothers took a prenatal DHA supplement during pregnancy scored significantly higher on a standardized test than those whose mothers had not taken the supplement. A study in 2004 showed that the higher a woman’s DHA levels at the time of delivery, the more quickly her baby would advance both mentally and physically. At 6 months of age, children of mothers with high DHA levels were up to two months more advanced than children of mothers with low DHA.
Later studies showed that women who take a 200 mg daily prenatal DHA supplement in their third trimester could add as much as six days to the length of gestation, which can make a huge difference for children. Doctors have long known that the closer a baby comes to staying in the womb for 38 weeks, the healthier the baby will be at birth. Prenatal DHA supplements have also been linked to a decreased risk of women developing PPD. The exact reason for this is unclear, but many doctors believe DHA can reduce the amount of shock a woman’s body goes through during pregnancy, labor and the postpartum period.
The benefits of taking a prenatal DHA supplement are many, but there is some concern about the use of synthetic DHA. This fatty acid can be used in supplement form by taking either fish oil tablets or a pill made by extracting DHA from algae. Fish oil tablets naturally come with the risk of an increased level of mercury, which can be avoided by taking pure, high-quality tablets. Prenatal DHA supplements made by extracting DHA from algae can come with the risk of breathing problems and stomach upset resulting from the use of hexane in the extraction process.
Research is ongoing regarding the use of prenatal DHA supplements. Pregnant women are typically highly encouraged by their doctors to take these supplements, because the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. Taking a high-quality prenatal DHA supplement is considered one of the best ways to increase cognitive development in babies and protect the physical and emotional health of the mother.