Women who take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may boost their babies’ immune systems and help protect against colds during the first months of life, a new study shows.
Infants whose mothers were given DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil, got sick less often and for shorter periods of time than babies whose mothers got none.
The difference wasn’t huge between the moms who took the supplements starting in the second trimester and those who didn’t, but it was significant. For instance, 1-month-old infants who did catch colds spent a full day less coughing, being congested and sniffling if their moms had taken DHA.
The study’s lead author, Usha Ramakrishnan, a researcher in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, is quick to note that DHA is no cure for the common cold. Still, she added, popping the supplements might pay off.
“Our findings are suggestive of a possible benefit,” said Ramakrishnan, an associate professor in the Atlanta school’s Department of Global Health whose study was published in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Ramakrishnan and her colleagues followed 851 Mexican women from the second trimester of pregnancy, through the babies’ births, and until the infants were six months old. About half of the women were given 400 milligrams of DHA each day starting in the second trimester. The rest of the women were given placebos.
The new moms were interviewed at one month, three months and six months after the babies were born. Each time, the women were asked whether the babies had experienced various respiratory symptoms, such as cough, phlegm, nasal congestion and wheezing in the previous 15 days. They were also asked if whether their infants had caught a cold during that time.
At one month, babies whose mothers took DHA experienced shorter periods of respiratory symptoms when they got sick.
As for the immune-boosting effect, Ramakrishnan points to earlier research showing that the function of a host of different kinds of cells can be improved by omega-3 fatty acids.
Time will tell how well the results will hold up. Earlier research suggested that DHA supplements might boost cognitive development in babies, but a large study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found no such impact.
Dr. Samuel Parry, chief of the division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, is waiting for more research before he starts recommending the supplement to his patients.
“We don’t think DHA causes harm in pregnancy,” he said. “But we’re skeptical that it really helps prevent colds in babies."
Parry, a member of the Center for Research on Reproduction and Women's Health, also urged pregnant women to be careful when choosing any nutritional supplements, because many are not regulated by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints