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Prenatal Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements May Cut Babies’ Colds


3 Star

Prenatal Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplements May Cut Babies’ Colds

Our Review Summary

This is a story reporting on a recently published study comparing the health of infants born to mothers who did or did not receive DHA supplements during a later portion (i.e. starting at 18 – 22 weeks) of their pregnancy.  These results follow several other publications about these infants and how they compare, which is something that should have been included in the story to provide readers with a more complete picture about what is known.  The health benefits were reported as percent improvement rather than absolute differences, which means that it is not possible for readers to know the magnitude of the differences in order to consider whether they are meaningful or not.


Why This Matters

While minimizing illness in one’s offspring is an issue of concern to all parents, helping readers to understand the impact of an internvention is critical to their being able to make an informed decision about whether something is worth doing.  And full discussion of risk is especially important in considering any supplement during the prenatal period.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There was no information about the cost of DHA supplementation. We easily found many websites selling plant-source (from algae) DHA. One site had a bottle of 60 (only 200 mg tabs, so the mother would need to take 2 to reach the 400 mg in the study) for $19.67.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The benefits associated with prenatal exposure to DHA supplement were reported only as relative benefits.  So while there was a 24% drop in the odds of having cold symptoms, 26% shorter cough duration, 15% less phlegm and etc., the reader really has no insight about whether these differences were meaningful or not.  Is a 24% drop the same as only 1 less cold over the course of a year?  The story needed to explain.

In addition – while these differences may have been statistically significant, would they really make a difference to the baby or its parents?

Besides – the lead researcher on the project was quoted as indicating that the findings weren’t ‘dramatic’.  Does this suggest that there are more impactful ways to infant health?

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story mentioned that the babies whose mothers had recevied prenatal supplementation with DHA had bouts with vomiting or rashes that lasted longer than the babies born to mothers in the control group.

The story mentioned that the women in the study had low DHA intake which was also the case for women in the US.  This appears to be an overstatement of the need for DHA supplementation for women in the US and the story should have touched on whether excessive DHA consumption might have potential consequences for pregnant women such as bleeding or problems with vitamin E levels.

In addition, the comments by Dr. Wu suggested that women use this supplement along with prenatal vitamins even though this particular study did not begin supplementing until 18-22 wks. A large randomized clinical published in JAMA showed some adverse outcomes among the female infants exposed in utero (not males), namely lower language scores and lower adaptive behavior scores.  We don’t know why the story chose to interview Dr. Wu, but perhaps her comments needed to be addressed by other expert perspectives as well.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The story mentioned that the study was conducted in a group of more 800 Mexican women and that the women were randomly assigned to recieve DHA supplement or placebo. It explained that the outcomes of the babies symptoms were assessed at 1, 3, and 6 months.

Discussion about two other aspects of the evidence would have made this a more informative story.  It would have been more complete to inform readers that this is part of a larger study and that previously published work by this group on this cohort found that there was no difference between the groups in terms of birth weight or head circumference.  And while mentioning that the women in the study tended to be deficient in DHA, the story neglected to follow up with information about whether DHA supplementation would be expected to have any impact in women who were not deficient in this nutrient.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story did not engage in overt disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The story contained a quote from a New York OB/GYN (who did not appear to have a role in the study reported on) indicating that she recommends that her patients take DHA, although her recommendation differed from that used in the study.

As the study was about the possible beneficial impact that prenatal supplementation has on the infant during the first months of life, it would have been more useful to include insight from indiviiduals with expertise in infant rather than maternal health.

It is a little troubling that the previous studies of the group of infants in the study reported on were not mentioned.  The outcomes taken together provide a better picture of the impact of supplementation with DHA.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The study reported on the use of an algae derived DHA supplement and possible health benefits observed in infants born to mothers who consumed them.  While suggesting that fish derived DHA could be problematic due to mercury contamination, the story failed to educate readers about other DHA containing food that could be consumed to obtain the recommended levels of intake during pregnancy.

Keeping small babies out of public places, not smoking, hand washing, and breast milk are all ways of decreasing the incidence of and improving recovery from viral illnesses.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story never did explicity state whether the product used in the study was generally available or not. One might be able to assume that it is, but it would have only required a line in the story to address availability and how widespread is its use.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story indicated that the study reported on was unique in that it looked at whether providing pregnant women with DHA supplements had an impact on the subsequent health of their offspring.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory


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