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What are the Pros and Cons of Prenatal DHA?

By Amanda R. Bell
Updated Feb 01, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By SteamLouis — On Sep 27, 2014

My biggest issue with prenatal DHA supplements have always been the fishy after burp. I already have a lot of nausea, that fishy smell makes things a lot worse. Anyway, I've finally found a supplement without that after burp. Thank goodness. Otherwise taking prenatal DHA capsules during pregnancy would be impossible for me.

By burcinc — On Sep 27, 2014

The purity levels of of all omega 3 supplements made from fish oil should be tested. The manufacturer should have this information on the bottle or on their website.

I won't mention the name because I don't want to sound like i'm advertising but I use a brand that has been extensively tested and proven to be pure. There is no risk of toxicity and the brand is very reliable. They've been around for a long time.

If everyone purchases their prenatal DHA from the same kind of brand, there is no need to worry about mercury or anything else. Those who are still worried should at least eat walnuts or other sources of omega 3 during pregnancy.

By fBoyle — On Sep 27, 2014

The potential risks of using a prenatal DHA supplement like mercury exposure and hexane are worrisome. I don't deny that. But I agree with the article that the benefits of DHA for the baby and mother are great. As long as one uses a high quality supplement from a reputable company, I think that the risks can be brought down to minimum. I believe that DHA is as important as folic acid and iron during pregnancy. It should be a part of every prenatal supplement.

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