updated 11 Dec 2011, 11:55
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Mon, Oct 10, 2011
The Business Times
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Eat right for baby
by Cheah-Ui-Hoon

MORE than half of the number of women who enter pregnancy do so with sub-optimal folate levels, which can be linked to hyperactivity in children. Lack of sufficient Omega 3 fatty acid intake in expecting mothers could also be the cause of higher inflammation risk in children.

More studies are now showing that what the mother consumes, or doesn't consume during pregnancy, has a direct effect on their children.

Referring to a 2010 UK study, Dr Beh Suan Tiong, consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist, Beh's Clinic for Women at Thomson Medical Centre, notes that this is the first time a study has demonstrated a relationship between maternal folate status in early pregnancy and behavioural outcomes in children.

In recent years, studies have shown that maternal nutrition affects fetal brain development and has been linked to maladjusted behaviour in children; that folate is essential for fetal growth and development; and head circumference at birth is associated with hyperactivity, inattention and total behavioural difficulties in childhood.

"But what we didn't know is whether the amount of folate taken early by the pregnant mother will affect fetal brain and behavioural development," he points out. Now a 2010 study published in a child psychology journal has shown that there is a direct link between maternal folate levels in early pregnancy and childhood hyperactivity and circumference of the infant's head.

Folic acid intake is commonly emphasised in pregnancy, but until the 2010 study, it is taken to reduce chances of the baby having a neural tube effect which impacts the skull and spinal column, he says.

In Singapore, says Dr Beh, while folate status in pregnant women in later stages of their pregnancies is usually adequate, it may not be in pre or early pregnancy stage.

The recommended level of folate, a water-soluble Vitamin B, is 400 microgrammes daily, and this can be remedied by consuming more leafy green vegetables, fruits, dried beans and peas, or oral supplements like tablets or the Dumex Mamil Mama Daily which provides the 100 per cent recommended daily allowances for folic acid.

Meanwhile, Dr Eline M van der Beek, research director of the Singapore Danone Research Centre for Specialised Nutrition, notes that in Asia, a higher consumption of DHA by pregnant mothers will result in an improved function of the immune system in their infants at birth.

"Current recommendations state that pregnant or lactating women would benefit from an additional 200mg of DHA daily as that will improve the Omega 3 status and the child's immune responses at birth. We tested this by collecting cells from the umbilical cord, and challenged them with a bacterial substance to see the immune response of the cells," she says, explaining the results from Salmon in pregnancy study (SIPS) which has been accepted for publication by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are the key component in this diet, and these can be found in fatty fish, preferably farmed so that the risk of contamination is lower.

Half of the women put on a high PUFA diet in the study showed that their cells' reaction to the bacterial substance was at least 50 per cent lower; while the production of inflammation proteins was no longer significantly elevated. "The women were recruited midway through their pregnancy, before the 20th week," explains Dr van der Beek.

"The response of the immune system of the baby at birth is important, because it is an indicator of how the system will develop thereafter," she explains. "It is also a clear indicator for the risk of immune diseases like allergies later in life," she adds. For women who breastfeed their baby, a high DHA intake will continue to benefit their babies.

The twist in this research for Asian women is that their Omega 3 intake is often affected by the presence of high Omega 6, as present in vegetable oils. "Although there is a low PUFA intake in general, specifically of DHA, another reason for concern is that if Omega 6 intake is high, it interferes with the body's metabolism and its capacity to produce the long chain Omega 3, like DHA," explains Dr van der Beek.

PUFA is often present in the diet in its precursor form, like the Omega-6 linoleic acid, and the enzymes used in the body to convert it into usable nutrients are also required for Omega 3 conversion.

"Omega 6 is prevalent in sunflower oil, corn oil, safflower oil for example," she notes. So what should expectant mothers be taking for their health and their babies'? "It should be a balanced diet with sufficient vegetable and fruits, and perhaps not cook everything in oil. And there should be one to two portions of fatty fish a week, and other sources of the Omega-3 DHA," she recommends.

There will be a public forum on nutrition for expectant mothers on Oct 22, from 1.30pm to 5.30pm, at NTUC Centre, One Marina Boulevard. Details and registration at

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