What Is DHA in Prenatal Vitamins?

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A pregnant woman is holding prenatal vitamins. (Image: shironosov/iStock/Getty Images)

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Found primarily in fish, DHA is important for a variety of health functions in adults. Pregnant women depend on this fatty acid to promote healthy fetal development. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the average woman only eats 2 ounces of the recommended 8 to 12 ounces of fish per week during pregnancy. This is why prenatal vitamin manufacturers are increasingly putting DHA in their products.

DHA Before and After Conception

Omega-3’s, like DHA, are called essential fatty acids because you can only get them from diet or supplements. Fetal development is dependent on a mother’s health, which is why it’s important to obtain the recommended amount of DHA before conception and during pregnancy. The American Pregnancy Association recommends taking a DHA supplement providing between 300 and 600 milligrams per day for at least six weeks before conception and throughout the pregnancy. Supplementation should also continue through nursing.

Effects in Fetal Development

When you think of fish oil, you might think of its benefits for the heart. DHA is heart-healthy, but it does much more for fetuses. The fatty acid ensures proper brain development and promotes better attention and learning habits later in life. DHA is also responsible for healthy eyes, nervous system development and proper immune function.

Fishy Problems in the Diet

Two main challenges can get in the way of getting enough DHA from eating fish. First is the fact that most Americans don’t eat enough healthy seafood, whether it’s due to a lack of access or money. Another problem is the misconception that eating fish will harm your baby. Certain types of seafood, such as swordfish and shark, have high levels of mercury that can adversely affect your pregnancy outcome. But there are healthier choices that are both high in DHA and low in mercury. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends eating 12 ounces a week of anchovies, salmon, freshwater bass or trout. You can also eat 6 ounces of tuna per week. DHA supplements can still help you get this essential nutrient without eating fish.

Where to Find DHA Supplements

Many name and generic brands of prenatal vitamins already contain DHA. If a particular supplement lacks DHA, or has under 300 milligrams, you may consider buying a separate DHA supplement designed for pregnant women. Your doctor may even prescribe a prenatal vitamin with DHA in it. Choices in supplements are numerous, so if you do choose an over-the-counter version, you might ask your physician for a brand recommendation.

Other Important Prenatal Vitamin Features

DHA is just one component to consider in a supplement. Prenatal vitamins contain many of the same nutrients as adult multivitamins, with a few ingredients in larger amounts. This is true of iron to prevent anemia during pregnancy, as well as iodine. Another crucial, and often overlooked, nutrient is folic acid. Also called vitamin B-9 or folate, folic acid protects both brain and spinal cord development – especially during early pregnancy. Kids Health recommends 400 micrograms a day before conception and throughout pregnancy. Folic acid is naturally present in orange juice and enriched grains, but even a balanced diet may not offer enough. Making sure your prenatal vitamin features DHA, folic acid and other vital nutrients can help ensure a healthy baby.

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