Eating and nutrition
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a good kind of fat. They’re good for both you and your baby during pregnancy. There are three main kinds: (Their names are really long, so it’s OK to just use the letters.)
- Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). This kind can’t be produced by your body. You have to get it through foods, like walnuts and soybeans.
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This kind helps your baby’s brain and eyes develop in the womb. Your body makes it on its own, but the best way to get it is through food or a supplement. A supplement is a product you take to make up for certain nutrients that you don’t get enough of in the foods you eat. For example, you can take a DHA supplement.
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Like DHA, your body also makes this kind, but it’s best to get it through food or a supplement.
Why do you need omega-3 fatty acids?
Omega-3 fatty acids can improve your overall health. They:
- Help lower blood pressure and maintain heart health
- Help reduce conditions, like high cholesterol and clogged arteries, that can lead to heart disease.
- May reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes
- Help brain health throughout life
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, omega-3 fatty acids—especially DHA—are important for your baby’s health. DHA is the most common omega-3 in the brain and eyes. It helps support your baby's brain and eye development.
What’s the best way to get omega-3 fatty acids?
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you need 200 milligrams of DHA each day. Here’s how you can get the right amount of DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids:
- Fish, including salmon, herring, sardines and fresh-water trout. You can eat up to 12 ounces per week of these fish. You can eat up to 6 ounces per week of albacore (white) tuna. It’s OK to eat these fish because they don’t contain a lot of mercury, a metal that can be harmful to a baby during pregnancy. Fish have DHA because of what they eat in the wild. Farm-raised fish may not contain DHA unless they’re fed food that has a lot of DHA.
- Vegetable oils, like canola, soybean and olive oil
- Foods that have DHA added to them, like orange juice, milk and eggs. Look for the word “fortified” on the package.
Algae oil and fish oil, like cod liver oil, are good sources of omega-e fatty acids. But taking fish oil products and a prenatal vitamin can cause you to get too much of certain vitamins, like A, D and E. Too much of these vitamins can be harmful. Too much fish oil also can lead to bleeding problems, like nosebleeds and blood in the urine. Talk to your health care provider before taking any fish oil products.
You may have heard that flaxseed and flaxseed oils are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Some studies on animals have shown that flaxseed can be harmful during pregnancy. We don’t know enough about the effects of flaxseed on human pregnancy. So it’s best not to use flaxseed or flaxseed oil if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
From a supplement
If you don’t get enough DHA from food, take a supplement that contains at least 200 milligrams of DHA each day. Many prenatal vitamins (vitamins made just for pregnant women) include DHA. Talk to your health care provider before you take any vitamins or supplements to make sure they’re safe for you during pregnancy.
Last reviewed July 2012
Funding for this article was provided in part by Martek. The March of Dimes does not endorse specific brands or products.
Foods to avoid
- Unpasteurized milk or juice
- Soft cheeses like feta and Brie
- Unheated deli meats and hot dogs
- Refrigerated, smoked seafood
- Undercooked poultry, meat or seafood