Omega-3 During Pregnancy

Common Omega-3 During Pregnancy Questions

Expectant and new mothers: You’ll be happy to know that one simple oil change can help you enjoy a healthier pregnancy and have a smarter baby. While eating more omega-3s is health-building for all ages, there is a stage of life when the omega-3 effect may have the most profound influence – during pregnancy and your child’s infancy. Here are some common omega-3 during pregnancy questions from expecting mothers that I have addressed in my practice:

Can omega-3s affect sperm count?

Omega-3s are good for fertility. It seems that all things that swim need omega-3s. A study of men attending a fertility clinic found that a higher intake of omega-3s was related to higher-quality, better-formed sperm. And although what happens to mice doesn’t always happen to men, a 2011 study showed that feeding DHA restored fertility in mice. The seminiferous tubules, the tissue in the testes where sperm grows, are loaded with omega-3s. So, guys, go fish!

How much omega-3 should I take during pregnancy and breast-feeding?

Here’s what I recommend in our medical practice, and why. While pregnant and breast-feeding, eat 12 ounces of safe seafood per week, and take 500 mg of omega-3 EPA/DHA supplements daily. This will give you about 1000 mg of omega-3s daily. Or, if you can’t stomach seafood, take 1000 mg of omega-3s EPA/DHA from fish oil supplements daily. A dose of 500 mg daily is the standard figure for all adults. Since baby’s rapidly growing body and brain need extra nutrients, especially omega-3s, it makes sense for a pregnant mother to eat more omega-3s than a nonpregnant person. Since you may have special nutritional needs, always check the dosage of all supplements with your health care provider.

Here’s how I arrived at the 100 mg daily dose. Omega-3 authorities agree that there are no safety issues with 1000 mg of omega-3s per day for any adult, including mothers during pregnancy and lactation. The recommendations of the most trusted authorities, such as the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids (ISSFAL) and the National Institutes of Health, is 500 mg per day as “the minimum preventive medicine requirements for all adults.” If 500 mg is the recommendation for all adults, and it goes up to 4000 mg per day for adults with cardiovascular and neurological problems, then certainly a pregnant woman must need more than 500 mg.

So let’s see whose tissues need those extra omega-3s. First, the growing baby. The baby’s brain is growing faster than at any other time during life, and omega-3s are one of the prime essential fats for brain growth. Various estimates are about 70 mg DHA per day to 25 mg per pound, especially during the brain growth spurt in the third trimester. So let’s say about 200 mg per day for the baby, to be on the safe side.

Then we have mother’s blood volume increasing around 40 percent to an extra couple of quarts. Red blood cell membranes are rich in omega-3s. While exact figures are hard to come by, for safety’s sake let’s add another 100 mg. Then we have a lot of extra uterine muscle, placenta, and breast-milk-producing tissue, so add another 200 mg for the mother’s body. The science is still uncertain, and we’re left with intelligent estimates. That gives a minimum of 1000 mg (1 gram) per day of combined DHA and EPA (at least 500 mg per day should be DHA) for the health of mother and baby.

In addition to eating more good fats while I’m pregnant, are there bad fats I shouldn’t eat?

Yes. While inside your womb, your baby’s growing brain uses 70 percent of all the food energy that goes through your placenta. Remember, smart fats make the proper-fitting locks for nerve keys to fit into and grow more connections.

How much omega-3 should I give my baby each day?

Since there is no official government Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for omega-3s, I’m frequently asked how much daily omega-3 DHA infants should eat. (Since most of the studies focus on DHA, not EPA, I discuss only DHA here.) I reviewed what science says, consulted experts, and did the math. The average breast-fed-only infant at about 6 months of age would get about 760 ml (27 ounces) of breast milk daily. (Babies average 2-2.5 ounces per pound per day in their first 6 months.) Assuming an average fat concentration of 40 grams/liter, a mother with optimal daily DHA consumption would yield about 300 mg DHA per day to her baby. Based on this reasoning, I advise mothers to be sure their infants get about 300 mg DHA per day from breast milk, DHA-fortified infant formula, omega-3 DHA supplements, or seafood.

Is my vegetarian diet okay for my baby?

Be prudent while you’re pregnant. Take 1000 mg per day of omega-3 supplements. Some studies show that DHA levels are low in vegetarians. DHA levels are typically lower in the blood of infants born to vegetarian mothers, and DHA blood levels of breast-fed infants of vegetarian mothers are only about one-third the level of nonvegetarians. Vegans (no animal products of seafood) must supplement their otherwise healthy diet with many nutrients, especially omega-3s.

How early should I begin feeding seafood to our baby?

Alaskan natives feed their infants fish eggs, called salmon roe (a rich source of omega-3s), at about 8 months of age. At the 2012 ISSFAL meeting I overheard a top omega-3 researcher saying, “We give our nine-month-old salmon roe.” In our medical practice, I advise patients to introduce wild salmon into the baby’s diet at about 8-9 months of age. Begin with a fingertipful of soft baked meat. Increase the amount and preparations as the baby’s ability to chew textures increases.

The magic words of infant feedings are “shape young tastes.” Called metabolic programming by nutrition researchers, it’s like the gut brain gets programmed to crave what is best for the body. I’ve noticed that infants who eat seafood early are more likely to like seafood later.

Here’s a fish story from our daughter Hayden:

I started giving all three of my children wild salmon at age 8 or 9 months. I wanted to start early so that they would get used to fish and consider it a staple food. I usually poached or baked it with lemon juice and fed it to them from my plate. At first I just gave them little bits mashed between my fingers. As they got older, I would give them more and more. Sharing it from my plate made it something special. When my toddlers went through stages where they did not want salmon, I would mash it up in their sweet potatoes or layer it with shredded cheese in quesadillas until they were happy to eat chunks of it again.

The Takeaway

Get the best omega-3 effect for you and your baby before and after birth:

  • During pregnancy, lactation, and for at least a few months postpartum, eat at least 12 ounces of safe oily fish per week, and take 500 mg of omega-3 EPA/DHA fish oil supplements daily. If you don’t eat seafood, try to get at least 1000 mg per day of omega-3s EPA/DHA from dietary supplements.
  • If formula feeding, choose a formula enriched with omega-3s.
  • Feed your infant at least 300 mg of omega-3s daily.