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Agency for Healthcare Research Quality

Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Effects on Child & Maternal Health

Full Title: Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Child and Maternal Health

July 2005

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Structured Abstract

Objectives: This report sought to investigate the following:

  1. The influence of omega-3 fatty acid intake (supplemented during pregnancy) on the duration of gestation, incidence of preeclampsia, eclapmsia or gestational hypertension (GHT), and incidence of infants small for gestational age (SGA), as well as the association between the maternal biomarkers during pregnancy and the pregnancy outcomes outlined above.
  2. The influence of omega-3 fatty acid intake (supplemented or breast milk) on the developmental outcomes in preterm and term infants, as well as the association between the maternal, fetal, or child's biomarkers and these clinical outcomes.

Data Sources: MEDLINE®, PreMEDLINE®, EMBASE, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, and CAB Health were searched without restriction by language of publication, publication type, or study design, except with respect to the MeSH term "dietary fats," which was limited by study design to increase its specificity. Additional published or unpublished literature was sought through manual searches of references lists of included studies and key review articles, and from the files of content experts.

Review Methods: Studies were considered relevant if they described live human populations of healthy preterm (< 37 weeks of GA), term (> 37 weeks of GA) infants or healthy pregnant women, investigated the use of any supplements known to contain omega-3 fatty acids and/or human milk, and utilized pertinent pregnancy and child developmental outcomes (e.g., growth, neurocognitive, and visual). Data were abstracted regarding study design, population, intervention/exposure and comparator(s), cointerventions, discontinuations (with reasons), and outcomes (i.e., clinical, biomarkers, and safety). Study quality (internal validity) and study applicability (external validity) were appraised.

Results: Question-specific qualitative synthesis of the evidence was derived. Meta-analysis was conducted with data concerning the supplemental influence on incidence of premature deliveries, GHT, birth weight, incidence of IUGR, growth patterns (i.e., weight, length, and head circumference) in term and preterm infants, neurological and cognitive development in term infants, and visual function in both term and preterm infants. One hundred and seventeen reports, describing 89 studies, were deemed relevant for the systematic review, with many studies described in more that one question.

Conclusions: Studies investigating the influence of omega-3 fatty acids on child and maternal health revealed the absence of a notable safety profile (i.e., moderate-to-severe adverse events). Pregnancy outcomes were either unaffected by omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, or the results were inconclusive. Results suggested the absence of effects with respect to the impact of supplementation on the incidence of GHT, preeclampsia or eclampsia, as well as on infants being born SGA. However, regarding evaluations of the duration of gestation, some discrepancies were observed, although most of the studies failed to detect a statistically significant effect. Biomarker data failed to clarify patterns in pregnancy outcome data.

Results concerning the impact of the intake of omega-3 fatty acids on the development of infants are primarily, although not uniformly, inconclusive. The inconsistencies in study results may be attributable to numerous factors.

Reliably ascribing definite child outcome-related benefits, or the absence thereof, to specific omega-3 fatty acids is difficult. Biomarker data failed to clarify patterns in child outcome data.

Future research should likely consider investigating the impact of specific omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid intake ratios. To produce results that are applicable to the North American population, populations consuming high omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid intake ratios should likely be randomized into trials also exhibiting better control of confounding variables than was observed.

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Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Child and Maternal Health

Evidence-based Practice Center: University of Ottawa
Topic Nominator: Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health

Current as of July 2005

Internet Citation:

Effects of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Child and Maternal Health, Structured Abstract. July 2005. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.


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