In rhesus monkeys, maternal n-3 fatty acid deficiency during pregnancy produces infant monkeys deficient in n-3 fatty acids at birth. These results stimulated current experiments to find out if n-3 fatty acids from fish in the diets of pregnant women would influence the concentration of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22:6 n-3) in the newborn human infant.

Fifteen healthy pregnant women were enrolled to receive a 9-wk dietary supplementation of n-3 fatty acids from the 26th to the 35th wk of pregnancy. Sixteen pregnant women were not supplemented and served as controls. n-3 Fatty acid supplementation consisted of sardines and additional fish oil, which provided a total of 2.6 g of n-3 fatty acids per day (d) for the 9-wk period of supplementation. This included 1.01 g DHA.

The end point of this study was the blood concentrations of DHA in the newborn infant. DHA in maternal red blood cells increased from 4.6% of total fatty acids to 7.15% at the end of the supplement period and at the time of delivery decreased (as expected) to 5.97% of total fatty acids. Maternal plasma showed a similar change from 2.12 to 3.51% of total fatty acids and then decreased to 2.35%. Levels of DHA in plasma and red blood cells of unsupplemented mothers did not change during the same time period.

Levels of DHA in blood of newborn infants differed greatly in infants born from n-3-supplemented mothers compared with control infants. In red blood cells, DHA was 7.92% of total fatty acids compared with 5.86% (control infants). Plasma values showed a similar difference: 5.05% vs. 3.47% (controls). In n-3-supplemented infants, DHA concentrations were 35.2% higher than in control infants in red blood cells and 45.5% higher in plasma.

These data indicate the importance of maternal dietary n-3 fatty acids and, in particular, maternal dietary DHA in promoting higher concentrations of DHA in the blood of the newborn infant.