The Importance of DHA for Premature Babies

Prenatal vitamins with docosahexaenoic acid, also known as DHA are one more way of protecting baby against some of the developmental problems that can follow premature birth in expectant mothers should start taking them as soon as they know they are pregnant. However, if the mother has not taken DHA before giving birth, supplemental DHA can still help protect the premature baby’s brain.

DHA is an essential fatty acid the baby’s body uses to make the brain. It is especially important during the 28th to 40th weeks of pregnancy, when the brain and central nervous system are busy wiring connections and growing blood vessels for their blood supply. Even when babies are carried to term, infants born to mothers who took at least 300 mg of DHA a day (the average woman’s diet provides just 45 to 115 mg of DHA a day) have better vision and faster mental development.

Dutch researchers measured the DHA in umbilical cord blood to see if a mother’s consumption of this essential fatty acid influenced the child’s later mental development. They found that by the age of seven years, children born to mothers who had consumed the most DHA had better eye-hand coordination. They tended to fidget less while sitting still. They had larger vocabularies, spoke in longer sentences, and scored higher on tests of verbal comprehension. The benefits of DHA before birth were significant for both boys and girls and for children born at full term and for children who were born prematurely. But DHA can also help preemies after they were born.

A child born prematurely is still developing brain and central nervous system tissue and connections although outside the womb. Ensuring that the baby receives DHA from breast milk by asking the mother to take a DHA supplement reduces rates of mental retardation and vision loss among both girls and boys, although the effect is greater for girls. Researchers believe that baby boys have faster metabolisms and may need more DHA than baby girls. Also, estrogen helps the body convert other omega-3 essential fatty acids in the diet into the DHA needed for brain development, so baby girls may get greater benefits from the full range of fatty acids in their diets than baby boys.

While 300 mg a day is an appropriate daily dosage of DHA for mothers who are still carrying their babies, most experts recommend 1,000 mg a day for mothers nursing preemies. Many doctors will order tests of the mother’s breast milk for DHA content, and if the DHA the mother takes is not finding its way into the breast milk, the baby will be given a separate DHA supplement. The benefits of DHA for kids are greatest for babies who weighed 1250 g (about 2-1/2 pounds) or less at birth.

What about DHA for kids after your child is discharged from the hospital? If you are breastfeeding, be sure to continue taking your own DHA supplement. If you are giving your child formula, be sure it contains DHA.

When your child no longer is fed exclusively milk and formula, you can give your child the more expensive docosahexaenoic acid single-cell oil (DHASCO), which is DHA processed from algae grown in cultivation tanks, often offered as “DHA for kids.”

Alternatively, you may prefer to give your child a high-quality fish oil for children, which provides DHA along with other essential fatty acids. Flaxseed oil and cod liver oil also provide DHA. The choice of the product is not as important as making sure the child receives all the essential fatty acids needed for healthy development every day.

Kim Rowley is the mother of preemie twin daughters, Macy and Mallory, born January 27th, 1994 over 13 weeks early weighing 2 pounds each. She calls them her "million dollar miracle babies." Follow Kim on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.