Increased intake of Omega-3’s during pregnancy has been shown to lower the risk of preeclampsia, increase birth weight and reduce the mother’s risk for depression.
A new Cochrane Review published this week has also found that increasing the intake of omega-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) during pregnancy reduces the risk of premature births.
Premature birth is the leading cause of death for children under 5 years old worldwide, accounting for close to one million deaths annually. It is estimated that more than 1 in 10 pregnancies will end in preterm birth.
“We know premature birth is a critical global health issue, with an estimated 15 million babies born too early each year,” explains Associate Professor Philippa Middleton from South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). “While the length of most pregnancies is between 38 and 42 weeks, premature babies are those born before the 37-week mark – and the earlier a baby is born, the greater the risk of death or poor health.”
Associate Professor Middleton and a team of Cochrane researchers have been looking closely at long-chain omega-3 fats and their role in reducing the risk of premature births – particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements. They looked at 70 randomized trials and found that for pregnant women, increasing the daily intake of long-chain omega-3s:
- lowers the risk of having a premature baby (less than 37 weeks) by 11% (from 134 per 1000 to 119 per 1000 births)
- lowers the risk of having an early premature baby (less than 34 weeks) by 42% (from 46 per 1000 to 27 per 1000 births)
- reduces the risk of having a small baby (less than 2500g) by 10%
“There are not many options for preventing premature birth, so these new findings are very important for pregnant women, babies and the health professionals who care for them,” Associate Professor Middleton says. “We don’t yet fully understand the causes of premature labour, so predicting and preventing early birth has always been a challenge. This is one of the reasons omega-3 supplementation in pregnancy is of such great interest to researchers around the world.”
The review was first undertaken back in 2006. At that time it was concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to support the routine use of omega-3 fatty acid supplements during pregnancy. More than a decade later, this updated review concludes that there’s high-quality evidence for omega-3 supplementation being an effective strategy for preventing preterm birth.
“Many pregnant women in the UK are already taking omega-3 supplements by personal choice rather than as a result of advice from health professionals,” says Associate Professor Middleton. “It’s worth noting though that many supplements currently on the market don’t contain the optimal dose or type of omega-3 for preventing premature birth. Our review found the optimum dose was a daily supplement containing between 500 and 1000 milligrams (mg) of long-chain omega-3 fats (containing at least 500mg of DHA) starting at 12 weeks of pregnancy.”
“Ultimately, we hope this review will make a real contribution to the evidence base we need to reduce premature births, which continue to be one of the most pressing and intractable maternal and child health problems in every country around the world.”
A team from including Cochrane researchers from the omega-3 review have used the findings from this review to develop resources and information about omega-3 fatty acids for pregnant women and health professionals that can be accessed online at www.sahmriresearch.org/omega 3.
- If you are pregnant with one baby, take omega-3 supplements each day starting from 12 weeks of pregnancy.
- Look for the omega-3s called DHA and EPA*. You will need to take at least 500mg of DHA per day.
- You do not need to take more than 1000mg of DHA plus EPA per day. Taking more will not give you or your baby any extra benefit.
- If you are vegetarian, you can take omega-3s as algal oil rather than fish oil.
- Once you have had your baby you can stop taking omega-3s.
If you would like to know more or need some help, please speak to your doctor or midwife.
*DHA stands for docosahexaenoic acid and EPA stands for eicosapentaenoic acid.