DHA Omega-3 and Pregnancy

DHA omega-3 and pregnancy

  • Before, during, and after pregnancy, DHA is an essential nutrient for mom and baby.
  • Moms have better moods and better health when they consume DHA during and after pregnancy.
  • Purified and certified fish oil supplements are a reliable and worry-free way for moms to get the DHA they need.

Most experts recommend that every pregnant woman consume at least 300 – 600 mg DHA each day, and that she consider more (e.g., 900 mg DHA/day) during the last trimester and first 3 post-natal months.


DHA is essential for pregnancyDHA omega-3 is an essential nutrient required during pregnancy.  It is necessary for normal and healthy development of the baby’s brain, eyes, and nerves while in the womb[1]. Consuming healthy amounts of DHA during pregnancy has long-lasting benefits for the child; consuming too little has been shown to put the child at risk for lower IQ and poorer social and communication skills at elementary-school age[2],[3],[4]. DHA omega-3 is found naturally in fatty fish, such as salmon and herring, and in dietary supplements.

Babies are completely dependent on their moms for DHA

The developing baby is completely dependent on mom for DHA.  Getting enough DHA during pregnancy is important because it provides nutrition for the baby’s growing immune and nervous systems. Getting enough DHA during the last trimester of pregnancy is crucial because the brain and eyes are developing rapidly during this time. The baby’s need for enough DHA is so strong that he or she will deplete the mom’s stores of DHA if the supply is low. This is why moms need to consume enough DHA for both of them. In addition, eye development and vision are not completely developed at birth so feeding the baby healthy levels of DHA from breast milk or formula helps vision continue to develop[5]. In addition, about one in ten women experience depressed moods after giving birth. Healthy levels of DHA have been shown to help improve moods in women before and after birth[6],[7],[8].

Most pregnant women consume far too little DHA

Research shows that pregnant women in North America consume far too little DHA; most consume less than 100 mg per day. Women following vegetarian or vegan diets consume even less.  Chia, walnuts, and flax seeds contain a different form of omega-3 that does not provide DHA[9],[10],[11],[12].

How much do you need?

Neither mom nor baby can make DHA in the body so it must be consumed through the diet or from supplements. Experts recommend getting at least 200 – 300 mg DHA per day, and some recommend up to 900 mg per day to cover the needs for mom and child[13],[14],[15],[16].

Minimum Daily DHA Intake Recommendations During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding13-16

United States experts 300 – 900 mg DHA
International Infant Research Group 200 mg DHA
World Health Organization (WHO) 300 mg EPA+DHA; at least 200 mg as DHA

DHA during pregnancy recommendation

Where to get DHA

Salmon, sardines, herring, and high-quality tuna provide the richest dietary sources of DHA.  Fish also provides lean protein and some minerals, but many pregnant women don’t eat fish regularly, or they eat fish that has low levels of DHA (like tilapia).  In addition, many pregnant women don’t eat fish due to worry over potential environmental toxins, such as mercury, lead, and PCBs.  While the U.S. government recommends that pregnant women eat no more than 12 ounces of fish a week[17], pregnant women and nursing mothers need to meet recommendations for DHA intake. This is why it’s important to be selective about the type of fish [see note below] or to consume fish oil supplements that have been purified. Selecting fish oil supplements that have been rigorously tested for quality and purity and certified by an independent third party, such as NSF® International or the International Fish Oil Standards Program, provides that reliable assurance.  Purified fish oil is available in capsules and liquids.

Supplementing with DHA fish oil works

It’s critical that pregnant women consume enough DHA because both mom and the developing infant need it during and after pregnancy. Purified DHA supplements from fish oil have been shown to be safe for both mom and infant, and they are a convenient and reliable way to ensure both mother and child get the DHA they need.


Note: The U.S. FDA and U.S. EPA currently recommend that women who may become pregnant, who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and young children eat a variety of fish but not more than 12 ounces per week, and that they avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. (Due to new evidence, this recommendation is currently under review.)  For more information about fish and seafood in your area, go to the U.S. EPA Fish Consumption Advisory website http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/fishshellfish/fishadvisories/.


By Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN ©All rights reserved

About the author: Gretchen Vannice, the Omega-3 RD , is a registered dietitian nutritionist and consultant who specializes in omega-3 fatty acids and natural foods. She is a strategist, trainer, speaker, and author. Gretchen is lead author of the “Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary Fatty Acids for Healthy Adults” published January 2014 and Omega-3 Handbook: A Ready Reference Guide for Health Professionals. She can be reached at www.omega3handbook.com.

 Disclaimer:  Written by an independent nutritional expert, this information is provided for educational purposes only.  It is not intended as medical advice.  Always consult your healthcare provider for medical advice.


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[3] Krabbendam K, Bakker E, Hornstra G, van Os J. Relationship between DHA status at birth and child problem behaviour at 7 years of age. Prostaglandins, Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2007;76(1):29-34.

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[10] Nochera CL, Goossen LH, et al. Consumption of DHA+EPA by low-income women during pregnancy and lactation.  Nutr Clin Prac 2011;26(4):445-450.

[11] Denomme J, Stark KD, Holub BJ. Directly quantitated dietary (n-3) fatty acid intakes of pregnant Canadian women are lower than current dietary recommendations. J Nutr 2005;135:206-211.

[12] Davis BC, Kris-Etherton PM. Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: Current knowledge and practical implications. Am J Clin Nutr, 2003;78:640S-646S.

[13] Fats and fatty acids in human nutrition: Report of an expert consultation. FAO Food Nutr Pap 2010;91:1-166.

[14] Hibbeln JR, David JM. Considerations regarding neuropsychiatric nutritional requirements for intakes of omega-3 highly unsaturated fatty acids. Prostaglandins,Leukot & Essent Fatty Acids 2009;81(2-3):179-186.

[15] Koletzko B, Cetin I, Thomas BJ for the Perinatal Lipid Intake Working Group. Dietary fat intakes for pregnant and lactating women. Br J Nutr, 2007;1-5.

[16] Simopoulos AP, Leaf A, Salem N Jr. Workshop statement on the essentiality of and recommended dietary intakes for omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Prostaglandins, Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 2000;63(3):119-121.

[17] http://water.epa.gov/scitech/swguidance/fishshellfish/outreach/advice_index.cfm

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