Fish oil doesn’t help preemies

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In 5 seconds

A major Canadian study shows that fish-oil supplements that mothers take to boost the levels of omega-3 in their breastmilk do nothing to prevent their preterm babies from developing lung disease.

Anne Monique Nuyt

Consumption of fish-oil supplements called DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, by breastfeeding mothers is ineffective in preventing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) in preterm infants born before the 29th week of pregnancy.

This is the main conclusion of a Canada-wide study by scientists at Université Laval and Université de Montréal that was published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

We asked co-author Anne Monique Nuyt, a physician neonatologist at the UdeM-affilated CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre, to explain the study and its ramifications for families worried about or facing BPD, a chronic lung disease.

This study was five years in the making. Were you surprised by the results?

We had a strong rationale to hypothesize that DHA supplement given to lactating mothers would enhance the survival of their infants without developing chronic lung disease of prematurity, or BPD. But this is not what was found. DHA supplementation to mothers did not improve BPD-free survival of very preterm infants. This shows again the importance of doing large and well-conducted studies to validate questions that have strong rationale – in other words, that seem very logical – before making health recommendations to the public.

Q: Your colleagues at Université Laval led the study. Was was your involvement?

Personally, I was part of the team of investigators who conceived the study, obtained funding and led the study realization and analyses of data under the leadership of Drs.  Isabelle Marc, the principal investigator at U Laval, and Dr. Pascal Lavoie of the University of British Columbia. Further, our unit in CHU Sainte Justine was part of the recruiting sites for the study, and my colleague Dr. Ibrahim Mohamed was the site investigator.

What’s the message for parents, now that we know fish oil is ineffective?

Pregnant and lactating mothers, including of preterm infants, should continue to have a balanced diet, including fish, but we cannot recommend taking fish oil as a supplement.

About this study

“Effect of maternal docosahexaenoic acid supplementation on bronchopulmonary dysplasia–free survival in breastfed preterm infants: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” by Isabelle Marc et al, was published July 14 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. See also the Université Laval press release.

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