Published:  2021-05-01

Maternal long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid status during early pregnancy: Association with child behavioral problems and the role of autonomic nervous system activity

Authors:  T. G. M. Vrijkotte, J. Smeets, S. R. de Rooij, J. A. Bosch

Tags:  Autonomic nervous system activity, Behavioural problems, Essential fatty acids, Offspring, Pregnancy

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Background & aims
The prenatal environment, including availability of critical nutrients, has a profound impact on offspring development. The present study examined the association between maternal long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LC-PUFA) status during pregnancy and later child behavioral problems at the age of 5–6 years. In light of evidence of autonomic nervous system (ANS) dysregulation in some behavioral problems, study further tested if the above association is statistically mediated by cardiac ANS activity.
Data was collected as part of the Amsterdam Born Children and their Development-study and complete data were available for 1717 mothers and their offspring. Maternal LC-PUFA status was assessed during early pregnancy (mean gestation = 12.7, SD = 2.5 weeks) and quantified as levels of docosahexenoic acid (DHA), arachidonic acid (AA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as well as the ratio of n-6:n-3 fatty acids. Child emotional problems and peer problems (internalizing problems), as well as conduct problems and inattention/hyperactivity (externalizing problems), were assessed using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire as rated by the mother and teacher at 5–6 years. Child cardiac respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), pre-ejection period (PEP), and heart rate (HR) were utilized as measures of ANS activity at 5–6 years.
The results confirmed an association between maternal LC-PUFA status and internalizing behavioral problems as rated by the mother, as shown for DHA (β = −0.11;p < 0.01), EPA (β = -0.22;p < 0.05), and n-6:n-3 LC-PUFA (β = 0.17;p < 0.01). Statistical mediation was only demonstrated for HR. No associations were observed between LC-PUFA status and externalizing behavioral problems.
The present results are consistent with a role of maternal LC-PUFA status in internalizing behavioral problems as rated by the mother. These results were not observed when problem behavior was rated by the teacher. Analyses did not yield strong evidence supporting ANS activity as a possible mediator in this relationship.