Prolonging gestation by just a day or two in a baby at risk of preterm birth can prevent long-term complications such as lung problems and reduce health care costs, experts say.
Researchers at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute are now recruiting 5500 pregnant women for a wider study to confirm the early findings. The initial work was part of a study of 2500 women checking for issues around post-natal depression.
As part of this work, 700 women were picked at random and asked to take fish oil during their pregnancy, to see if it made any difference to their child’s brain development.
The supplements made no difference for children of healthy women on a nutritious diet, based on checks of the children at 18 months and then again at four years.
The work also found, however, gestations extended by an average of two days in women who had the fish oil supplement.
SAHMRI Healthy Mothers, Babies and Children section leader Professor Maria Makrides said that for babies at risk of early arrival, an extra two days is pivotal.
Her group has won funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council to recruit 5500 pregnant women for a wider study to verify the findings. Prof Makrides said the finding that fish oil made no difference to neuro development was important.
“The other important finding was we saw fish oil supplementation extend the average duration of gestation by about two days,” she said.
“It reduced the proportion of births at less than 34 weeks by about 50 per cent — they are the infants that are most likely to need intensive care and most likely to suffer morbidities of being born preterm.
“If we are shifting the gestation then this is a really important outcome.”
The study will ask women to take a supplement daily — some will have fish oil, others will be given vegetable oil so researchers can check for differences.
Once they reach 34 weeks gestation they will be taken off the oil, in the hope the effect cuts out by they time they reach full term so there is no extension beyond the expected delivery date. “This is a safe, cheap potential solution that can easily be applied to everyone,” Prof Makrides said.
Pregnant women interested in taking part in the study can call 81617458.