Certain fatty acids give preterm babies improved vision
Preterm babies have a risk of impaired vision, but if they are given supplements of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids at the age of two and half years their vision improves. This was demonstrated in a Swedish study that is published in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe. The scientists explain why these fatty acids are so important, not just for eye health but for the brain and for health in general.
Children born before the 37th week of pregnancy are considered preterm. Compared with babies born on time, the organs in preterm babies are less developed, and the babies are also more vulnerable and have an increased risk of acute and lasting complications, including a greater risk of developing premature retinopathy (ROP). This is a disease in the blood vessels of the retina that can lead to retinal scarring and retinal detachment, which can cause loss of vision or blindness. The vision impairment is often linked to neurological disturbances in most preterm babies.
The development of the infant’s eyes, brain, and other organs depends on a sufficient supply of long-chained omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. If the baby is born preterm, the supply of these fatty acids from the mother comes to a grinding halt. In the new study, Swedish scientists looked at the effect of giving supplements of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and arachidonic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) to babies who were born extremely early. They wanted to see how it affected their vision. A total of 178 babies born at hospitals in Gothenburg, Lund, and Stockholm participated in the study. The children had been born before week 28 of the pregnancy and weighed 790 grams on average. One group of babies got supplements of omega-3 and omega-6 from the moment they were born and until the time of expected delivery. The other group was not supplemented and served as a control group.
Better vision and brain function
Earlier research has found that supplementation with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid halves the risk of premature retinopathy in preterm babies. In the new study, the scientists looked at the eye health and vision in preterm babies two and half years after the time that they were supposed to have been born.
They could see that the children who had been given supplements with the two fatty acids had better vision compared with the control group, regardless of whether they had premature retinopathy. In addition, the improved vision was not only linked to the positive effect on the retinal development. It also looked as if the two supplements had a positive effect on the brain’s ability to interpret different visual impressions.
There is increasing focus on the importance of giving relevant nutrients to preterm babies. Still, guidelines are needed for the role polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6. The new Swedish study sheds light on the importance of giving these supplements to babies who are born too early. In the future, scientists want to look closer at how supplements of these two fatty acids affect the cognitive skills and neurological development of preterm babies.
Why are omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids so important for the child’s development?
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential. They are building blocks in all cell membranes and support countless biochemical processes. These fatty acids are also important for the development of the baby’s retina and brain. They are embedded in the membranes of nerve cells. This is of great importance in the third trimester and in the baby’s first year of life, where the brain undergoes rapid growth and development. The brain contains quite a lot of the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, and the omega-6 fatty acid, AA (arachidonic acid). It was these two fatty acids that were used in the Swedish study. It is important for expecting mothers to get plenty of omega-3 and omega-6, even if their baby arrives on time. It’s quite easy to get enough AA from dietary sources, but many pregnant and breastfeeding women eat to little oily fish and could easily benefit from taking a high-quality fish oil supplement.
Pia Lundgren et al. Visual outcome at 2,5 years of age in ϖ-3 and ϖ-6 long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplemented preterm infants: a follow-up of a randomized controlled trial. The Lancet Regional Health – Europe. 2023
University of Gothenburg. Preterm babies given certain acids have better vision. ScienceDaily 2023
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