Preterm birth is the most common cause of low infant birth weight and infant morbidity and mortality. Evidence from human and animal studies indicates that essential fatty acids of both the n-3 and n-6 series, and their eicosanoid metabolites, play important and modifiable roles in gestational duration and parturition, and n-3 fatty acid intake during pregnancy may be inadequate.

Prostaglandins (PG) of the 2-series are involved in parturition and connective tissue remodeling associated with cervical maturation and rupture of membranes. In the absence of infections, preterm birth is characterized by lower reproductive tissue PG production and decreased inducible cyclooxygenase expression. Women who deliver prematurely have increased pools of n-6 fatty acid and decreased n-3 fatty acids, despite the lower PG production. Several human pregnancy supplementation trials with n-3 fatty acids have shown a significant reduction in the incidence of premature deliver and increased birth weight associated with increased gestational duration.

Supplementation with long chain n-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid may be useful in prolonging the duration of gestation in some high-risk pregnancies. Evidence presented in this review is discussed in terms of the roles of dietary n-3 and n-6 fatty acids in gestation and parturition, mechanisms by which they may influence gestational duration and the human trials suggesting that increased dietary long-chain n-3 fatty acids decrease the incidence of premature delivery.