DHA supplements have been touted as natural remedies to avoid postpartum depression and as a means of improving babies’ cognitive and language skills, but a study released today found no benefit in any of these areas for babies or their mothers.
The study, which appears in the October 20 issue of JAMA, was conducted in five Australian maternity hospitals and included over 2,000 women.
Women received DHA-rich fish oil capsules (providing 800 mg/d of DHA) or matched vegetable oil capsules without DHA during their pregnancies, from study entry to birth. The women began the study when they were less than 21 weeks pregnant. Of the 2,399 women enrolled, 96.7 percent completed the trial.
The researchers found that the percentage of women reporting high levels of depressive symptoms during the first 6 months postpartum did not differ between the DHA and control groups (9.67 percent vs. 11.19 percent). The percentage of women with a new medical diagnosis for depression during the trial or a diagnosis requiring treatment also did not differ between groups.
Also, average cognitive scores of children from women allocated to the DHA group did not differ from average scores of children of women from the control group; and overall, average language scores did not differ between groups.
Other developmental outcomes, such as motor development and social-emotional behavior, also did not differ between groups overall.
Maria Makrides, of the Women’s and Children’s Health Research Institute in Adelaide, led the multicenter, randomized controlled trial.
“Epidemiological investigations from the United States and Europe demonstrate that higher intakes of n-3 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFA) from fish and seafood during pregnancy are associated with a reduced risk of depressive symptoms in the postnatal period, as well as improved developmental outcomes in the offspring,” Makrides and her colleagues wrote. “However, n-3 LCPUFA intervention trials in human pregnancy have reported mixed results and have not been conclusive largely because of methodological limitations.” The researchers add that trials focused on the developmental outcomes of children had high attrition rates and were not large in size.
“Despite the paucity of evidence, recommendations exist to increase intake of DHA in pregnancy, and the nutritional supplement industry successfully markets prenatal supplements with DHA to optimize brain function of mother and infant,” wrote the researchers. “Before DHA supplementation in pregnancy becomes widespread, it is important to know not only if there are benefits, but also of any risks for either the mother or child.”
“Current recommendations suggest that pregnant women increase their dietary DHA to improve their health outcomes as well as those of their children. Such recommendations are increasingly being adopted with women taking prenatal supplements with DHA,” the authors wrote. “However, the results of [this trial] do not support routine DHA supplementation for pregnant women to reduce depressive symptoms or to improve cognitive or language outcomes in early childhood.”
Minnesota law requires that all hospitals provide information to new mothers about postpartum depression and all health care providers have information about postpartum depression available. You can find informational handouts in English, Spanish, Hmong, Russian and Somali developed by the Minnesota Department of health here.
Also keep in mind that skin-to-skin contact has been shown to reduce postpartum depression in mothers, along with helping babies cry less and sleep better.