For years, how to prevent premature birth has been studied, with the aim of reducing the number of preterm infants.
According to key facts presented by the World Health Organization, each year more than 1 in 10 babies around the world are born before 37 weeks gestation.
Premature birth carries many short and long term complications for children.
Complications of preterm birth are the leading cause of death of children aged under 5.
How To Prevent Premature Birth: New Study
Modern medical advancements have drastically improved the survival rates and long-term outcomes for preterm babies.
However, these babies still carry long term effects of prematurity.
With cost effective treatment, it’s estimated we could prevent premature birth by at least 75%.
A newly published Cochrane Review found pregnant women who increased their omega-3 fatty acid intake could prevent premature birth or reduce the risk of having a preterm infant.
Omega-3 Supplements Reduce Premature Birth
A focus on how to prevent premature birth is important for many reasons.
Premature infants often spend weeks, if not months, in neonatal intensive care units (NICU).
They’re at risk for long term complications such as:
- Lung conditions, such as asthma or lung disease
- Growth and development problems
- Motor and cognitive disabilities
- Intestinal problems caused by necrotizing enterocolitis
- Vision problems
- Hearing loss.
As the mother of a baby born at 31 weeks, who spent six weeks in the NICU and continues to require physical therapy at two years old, I know the importance of finding ways to prevent premature birth.
There is a substantial cost to the healthcare system and to parents who care for these infants immediately after birth, as well as long term.
Many premature infants require ongoing medical care and specialty therapies long after they leave the NICU.
Many parents struggle to balance short maternity leave with long NICU stays.
For months and years after discharge, there’s a conflict between having to work and to keep all the necessary medical and therapy appointments.
In addition to the high financial cost, premature birth takes a high mental health and emotional toll on parents.
Anything we can do to prevent premature birth will have a positive impact on babies, parents and the healthcare system.
A Cochrane Review is the gold standard of research because it compiles research from multiple studies and includes a large pool of research participants.
This Cochrane Review was led by a team of researchers at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute.
They compiled 70 randomised trials, which included nearly 20,000 women. They found increasing omega-3 intake during pregnancy reduced the risk of premature birth.
Can Omega-3 Prevent Premature Birth?
The 70 trials included were conducted in high-income, developed countries such as Australia, the US, the Netherlands, Denmark and England.
They included woman at normal and high risk for premature birth.
The study found taking an omega-3 long-chain fatty acid supplement during pregnancy:
- Lowers the risk of having a premature baby (birth prior to 37 weeks) by 11%, from 134 preterm births per 1,000 births to 119 preterm births per 1,000 births
- Lowers the risk of having an early premature birth (birth prior to 34 weeks) by 42%, from 46 early preterm births per 1,000 births to 27 early preterm births per 1,000 births.
The trials included mostly used supplements containing the omega-3 long-chain fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?
The human body requires a variety of nutrients to function. It needs essential fatty acids to function at its best.
Omega-3s are components of the membranes surrounding the cells. They also provide energy and affect the function of the heart, the blood vessels and more.
Omega-3 long-chain fatty acids are found in fish, flaxseeds, some plant oils and certain supplements. Some foods are also fortified with omega-3s.
Why Did Researchers Look At Omega-3s To Reduce Premature Birth?
As an area of research, premature birth has a long history.
Although we’ve made many advancements in neonatal care, which help even the most fragile infants survive, ultimately the best advancements are those that prevent preterm birth.
In the 1980s, researchers saw a high rate of premature birth in Denmark compared with rates in the neighbouring Faroe Islands.
Fish was a dietary staple in the Faroe Islands at the time. This led researchers to look at fish intake as a potential factor in women’s longer pregnancies.
The early research looked at the omega-3 long-chain fatty acids in the fish; this seemed to be a possible factor in prolonging pregnancy.
Researchers thought the fatty acids might reduce the potency of prostaglandins, which could trigger early birth.
Based on the Cochrane Review, taking omega-3 supplements during pregnancy is one of a few effective and safe strategies that could reduce preterm labour and premature birth.
Is Consuming Fish More Effective Than Taking Supplements?
The studies included in this review looked at omega-3 supplements rather than dietary changes like increased consumption of fish.
The amount of omega-3 taken in many of the studies would be difficult for many women to get by making dietary changes.
The researchers wrote: “To get the recommended amount of DHA that was used in many trials, you would need to eat at least two to three 150g serves of salmon every week.
“The advice for pregnant women expecting a single baby is to consume daily fish oil supplements containing at least 500mg of DHA, starting at 12 weeks of pregnancy. The supplement does not need to contain more than 1000mg DHA+EPA. There appears to be no extra benefit of higher doses”.
It is possible to get adequate omega-3s in a varied diet, including:
- 2-3 servings of low mercury, high fat fish per week
- Plant based oils, such as flaxseed oil
- Nuts and seeds.
In this case, a supplement might not be necessary. Otherwise, a supplement is the easiest way to consume the recommended amount.
If you’re unsure about your dietary intake and supplements, you can speak with your midwife, physician or a registered dietician to learn more about the best way to help you reach a healthy full term pregnancy.
Am I At Risk For Premature Birth?
There are some risk factors for premature birth. In many cases, however, there’s no known reason for the early birth.
Some risk factors include:
- Previous history of preterm birth
- A pre-pregnancy weight that is considered under or over weight
- Infections of the reproductive tract during pregnancy
- Smoking, consuming alcohol, or illicit drug use during pregnancy
- Being pregnant with multiples
- A baby that has certain congenital birth defects
- Placental complications, cervical insufficiency, or vaginal bleeding in the second or third trimester
- Inadequate prenatal care
The studies used in this review included women at risk, as well as low risk women.
Based on their review, the researchers recommend increasing omega-3 intake, regardless of risk level.
An important note: even if omega-3s don’t completely reduce risk, there is significantly lower risk of early premature birth.
Every week in utero makes a big difference to short and long term outcomes for a baby.
If a supplement can mean a baby is born at 35 weeks gestation rather than 31 weeks gestation, the baby’s risk of ongoing complications might be drastically reduced.
You can learn more about the importance of each week in Premature Babies – What To Expect Week By Week.
Other Benefits Of Omega-3 During Pregnancy
The focus on helping to prevent premature birth is an important one.
It could save millions of babies every year from complications and long term health problems.
There are also other benefits to babies and mothers with adequate levels of omega 3.
Research has shown babies born to mothers who eat plenty of seafood had improved neuropsychological development, including a lower risk of autism.
You can read more in Seafood During Pregnancy – Can It Help Your Baby’s Brain?
Mothers can also benefit from adequate intake of healthy fat from fish. During pregnancy, women will transfer high levels of fatty acids to their developing babies.
This can lead to maternal deficiency or depletion of essential fatty acids. Breastfeeding can decrease levels even further.
This means women might be starting the journey into motherhood with low energy levels. And because it is common to avoid a high consumption of fish, due to concerns about mercury levels, most women don’t get enough essential fatty acids.
To read more about this check out Postnatal Depletion – What It Is And How To Recover.