Any pregnant woman who has read What to Expect When You're Expecting is familiar with the fish conundrum: Should she eat more fish to give Baby all those brain-boosting omega-3 fats? Or limit her intake to save Baby from brain-toxic mercury in fish from polluted oceans? The pendulum has certainly swung both ways on this, but evidence is growing that for optimizing brain development, the benefits of fish outweigh the risks. Take a new Harvard University study published in this month's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It found that expectant moms who ate the most fish—more than three servings a week—were 30 percent more likely to have children with higher developmental scores at 18 months of age compared with those whose mothers ate less than a serving a week. But the women from Denmark weren't choosing tuna, shark, or king mackerel (known for their high mercury content) but instead ate low-mercury varieties common in their region: cod, salmon, herring, and smaller species of mackerel.
Inherited genes certainly play a major role in determining a baby's intelligence, but moms-to-be can also take certain steps, experts say, to help ensure that these genes are programmed correctly in the womb and during the first few months of life. (You may, though, want to skip those boost-your-baby's-IQ videos since this recent study found they don't work.) Here's what actually could make a difference:
1. Get those omega-3s: The National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition recently began recommending that expectant and nursing mothers eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel to maximize their baby's brain development. Tuna is OK, too, if limited to 6 ounces per week. You can also get a hefty dose of omega-3 fats in fortified foods, such as certain eggs, margarines, and brands of pasta.
2. Stay active during pregnancy: Exercise improves blood flow to the fetus, helping transport nutrients and oxygen more efficiently. Check with your doctor about how much activity is best for you. Most women find that low-impact activities like walking and swimming are gentler on their bodies as their pregnancy progresses.
3. Get your thyroid checked: A New England Journal of Medicine study found that babies born to moms with underactive thyroids may have substantially lower IQ scores. The researchers think fetuses need sufficient levels of thyroid hormone from their mothers early on for their brains to properly develop.
4. Reduce relationship stress: This is a toughie, but if you're experiencing a lot of marital spats while pregnant, it could have a negative impact on your baby's intelligence. Researchers believe that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol cross the placenta and affect a baby's brain development. Thus, dads-to-be play a crucial role in their baby's development, too.
5. Breast-feed for as long as possible: The Harvard study also found that babies who were breast-fed for 10 months or longer had higher developmental scores at 18 months. Those great fats found in fish also pass into breast milk. While baby formulas are now fortified with these fats, there may be other still-unrecognized substances in breast milk that help with babies' brain development. Whether breast milk can actually boost a baby's IQ remains a topic of hot debate, with some studies saying it does while newer ones say it doesn't.
For more details on maintaining a healthy pregnancy, you can check out this article on pregnancy myths.