BACKGROUND: The requirement of essential fatty acids (EFA) for the development of the brain is well documented.

OBJECTIVE: To investigate the early neurological development at term and 44 weeks gestational age in preterm infants in relation to EFA concentrations in breast milk and in infants' and mothers' plasma phospholipids.

METHOD: Fifty-one premature infants and their mothers were consecutively included in the study. The median gestational age was 34 weeks (range 24-36). The motor quality, motor and behavioural development were assessed by General Movements (GMs), the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (BNBAS) and a Self Regulation Scale.

RESULTS: Mother's education and gestational age correlated to several outcome variables. Multiple regression with correction for background factors showed negative associations between early breast milk concentrations of Mead acid and GMs and between AA and the BNBAS clusters Orientation and Range of States, respectively. Between 40 and 44 weeks gestational age, no expected increased scores were observed for Regulation of States, Range of States and Self Regulation. During the corresponding time, increased concentration of linoleic acid in mothers' plasma was negatively associated with improvement in Orientation and increased concentration of EPA in the infants' plasma was positively associated with improvement in Autonomic Stability.

CONCLUSIONS: The major omega-6 fatty acids and Mead acid were negatively associated with early development and omega-3 fatty acids positively associated. Mother's education and the gestational age influenced the outcome more strongly than mother's and infant's morbidities. Further follow-up will elucidate the significance of these early findings.