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Fatty Acid Affects Newborns' Sleep Patterns, Say Nutritionist
March 13, 2000

Could it be that a newborn who is a restful sleeper is a smarter baby?

A new study by nutritionist Carol Lammi-Keefe, indicates that a newborn's sleep patterns are a functional measure of docosahexanoic (DHA), a fatty acid needed for the healthy development of brain and nerve cells in fetuses and newborns.

"We are particularly excited about this finding because in the nutritional community it is tough to get a functional measure," says Lammi-Keefe, professor and head of the Department of Nutritional Sciences. "So often we're left with a 'so what' question. In this case, the sleep patterns were our functional measure."

Lammi-Keefe's earlier work focused on the levels of DHA in pregnant women and nursing mothers who ate different amounts of foods rich in the nutrient. She found that the mother is a baby's major source of DHA while in the womb and up to two years after birth, while the brain continues to develop. Babies are unable to produce sufficient amounts of the nutrient on their own.

During the initial research, it was difficult to detect the effects on the babies, so Lammi-Keefe investigated alternative methods of evaluation. She decided to focus on infant sleep patterns because "they are known to reflect the maturity of an infant's central nervous system, and because we have an expert in infant sleep patterns at UConn."

Lammi-Keefe is referring to Evelyn Thoman, a professor of psychology who has been measuring sleep in infants for decades. Thoman's past work showed a correlation between an infant's sleep patterns at birth and the baby's motor and mental scores months later. In essence, the more mature a central nervous system and brain are, the more quiet sleep occurs.

Working with Thoman and Windham Hospital, Lammi-Keefe and her graduate students examined blood samples taken from a number of mothers who had just given birth. Then, each infant was assessed for sleep with a non-intrusive instrument. A pad equipped with special sensors was positioned in the baby crib. Every move and breath of the infant was recorded and translated to a data log for a period of 24 to 36 hours.

"Based on our earlier work, what we expected to find was that women with lower or with higher amounts of DHA in their bodies during pregnancy had infants who had different sleep patterns, and we proved it. The higher the levels in the mother and infant, the more quiet the infant's sleep patterns were," according to Lammi-Keefe.

As a result of these findings, Lammi-Keefe says she would urge pregnant and nursing mothers to increase the DHA levels in their bodies. The best source of the nutrient is cold water fish, including: salmon, tuna, flounder, haddock, herring and sardines. She recommends that they incorporate fish into their diets at least three times a week.

Will this make a child a genius? Lammi-Keefe says probably not, but by taking steps to ensure a developing fetus and infant receives critical nutrients, "you are giving your child an edge," she says.

Her project was funded by the Donahue Foundation, the UConn Research Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lammi-Keefe presented her findings at the American Dietetic Association's Annual Meeting in Atlanta and has been asked to make several other presentations in Bethesda, Md., and San Diego.

Janice Palmer