Fish Oil Doesn't Boost Babies' Smarts, Study Finds
Pregnant women who take fish oil in the hope of preventing postpartum depression or boosting their baby's brain development are likely to be disappointed, according to a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Despite past research indicating that women with higher blood concentrations of docosahexaenoic (DHA) acid—found in fish oil pills and certain prenatal vitamins and baby formulas—are less likely to have postpartum depression and more likely to have smarter babies, the new study suggests none of the above, the Los Angeles Times reports. Australian researchers divided 2,399 women who were halfway through their pregnancies into two groups, one receiving a daily fish oil capsule and the other receiving a vegetable oil capsule. The team assessed the mothers' depression and the babies' cognitive development at two points after birth, but found the fish oil group did no better than the vegetable oil group.
Taking fish oil is just one of many things pregnant women may try to increase their chances of having a happier, healthier, and perhaps even smarter baby. U.S. News's Angela Haupt recently talked with journalist Annie Murphy Paul, author of a new book Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, who shared her insight on which prenatal behaviors withstand scientific scrutiny—and which are shaky at best. Edited excerpts:
Q: Does research support gadgets and other devices marketed to boost babies' intelligence?
A: Parents often try prenatal education systems, which are completely unsupported by science. There's no indication they will make your baby smarter. Likewise, playing Mozart through headphones to the pregnant belly won't increase intelligence, and could even be harmful. A fetus isn't expecting music to be blasted into the womb, and it may be so loud it causes damage.
Q: What's the deal with chocolate—can eating it during pregnancy really benefit babies, as you say in your book?
A: Frequent chocolate consumption during pregnancy has been tied to a happier, less fussy baby. Pregnant women who eat five or more servings of chocolate each week have a 40 percent lower risk of developing preeclampsia, a high blood pressure condition [that can endanger the lives of both mother and child]. If you're dying to treat yourself when pregnant, I would suggest some chocolate.
Q: You advocate that pregnant women do a "kitchen purge," especially to discard certain plastics. Why?
A: Household plastics often contain the chemicals bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. These chemicals are endocrine disrupters, which means they imitate the action of chemical messengers in our bodies. Even a small amount can be damaging because our bodies don't recognize them as foreign, and they can mess up the fetus's development process. You can tell if your [plastics contain BPA] by looking at the recycling code on the bottom. Anything labeled 3, 6, or 7 should go in the trash. And don't use plastic in the microwave or put it in the dishwasher, since heat can release BPA.
Q: Speaking of toxins, what's the consensus on alcohol use during pregnancy? A recent study suggests light drinking may not harm the fetus, contrary to traditional advice to abstain.
A: There's a reason public health experts and doctors always say no amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy. That's not just an evasion or a stock line—it's true. We don't know how much is safe to drink and how much is problematic. The genetic makeup of the woman and the fetus also plays a role, because both will differ in how they respond to alcohol. That fuzziness is why I decided not to drink at all when I was pregnant. If you're thinking about it, remember that the fetus is most susceptible to damage from alcohol during the first trimester.
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