Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston decided to measure the effects in infants whose mothers supplemented their diet with DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) because the omega-3 fatty acid is believed to play an important role in neurodevelopment and visual function. DHA from the mother's milk is known to increase the DHA content in the blood lipids of recipient infants.
The benefits of DHA and ARA (arachidonic acid) fortification for bottle-fed babies were investigated in a study carried out earlier this year, which concluded that the fatty acids may help them to see more clearly during the first year of life.
However the Baylor researchers did not observe quite the same results in the breast-fed infants.
Two hundred and twenty seven breastfeeding women were each given a capsule containing either 200mg of high-DHA algal oil or a vegetable oil with no DHA every day in the four months following delivery.
At four months the researchers found that the mothers' milk lipid and the infants' plasma phospholipid DHA contents were around 75 and 35 percent higher respectively in the supplemented group than in the control group. But there was no difference between the two groups in neurodevelopmental indexes at 12 months, or in visual function at either four or eight months.
At 30 months, there was no difference in the Mental Development Index between the two groups. However the supplemented group scored higher on the Bayley Psychomotor Development Index, which measures hand-eye co-ordination.
"DHA supplementation of breastfeeding mothers results in higher infant plasma phospholipid DHA contents during supplementation and a higher Bayley Psychomotor Development Index at 30 months of age but results in no other advantages either at or before this age," concluded the researchers.
The results of the study were well received by pediatrician Dr William Sears: "This study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that DHA supplementation during breastfeeding results in long-term benefits for children," he said.
"This extremely important study suggests that women in the US should consider DHA supplementation during pregnancy and nursing."
Martek DHA is contained in a number of supplement and food products aimed at pregnant and nursing women, including Expecta Lipil supplements from Mead Johnson, OptiNate from First Horizon, and Oh Mama! nutrition bars.
According to the company, Martek's is the only DHA allowed by the FDA in infant formulas in the US.
Martek currently holds more than 75 percent of the fatty-acid to infant formula market and aims to be in the upper-90s by the end of 2005. It counts Mead Johnson, Wyeth, Abbott Laboratories and Nestle amongst the licensees of its algae-derived ingredient.