Pregnancy Nutrition for Your Baby’s Vision
A balanced eating plan is the foundation of a healthy pregnancy that promotes proper growth and supports overall health in a developing baby. Good nutrition plays a particularly important part in eye and brain development during pregnancy.
How the brain and eyes work together
You may think good vision is all about eye health, but it’s more than that. We actually “see” with our brains, and our eyes collect the visual information. Photoreceptors in the retina of each eye convert light to signals that are ferried to the brain by way of the optic nerve. The brain then processes the information so that we can understand, or see, shapes, movement, depth, and color.1
Along with other nutrients, lutein, zeaxanthin and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) support eye development and brain health.
Carotenoids: More than Colorful
Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids, compounds found naturally in brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and in egg yolks. Corn, and green leafy vegetables including spinach, kale, and broccoli, are particularly rich in lutein and zeaxanthin, which are usually found together in foods.2
Science shows that, during pregnancy, lutein and zeaxanthin accumulate in the retina of baby’s eyes, where they will function after birth to absorb damaging blue light, neutralize destructive free radicals, and fight inflammation.3 Lutein and zeaxanthin are also found in areas of the infant brain involved in sight, learning, and memory.4 Lutein is particularly abundant in the infant brain, suggesting the necessity of this nutrient in baby’s central nervous system development.5
A baby’s brain and eye development accelerate during the last trimester of pregnancy, so it’s important that pregnancies go to full-term, or as close to it as possible to maximize visual and brain development.
How much lutein and zeaxanthin do pregnant women need?
During pregnancy, mom’s lutein and zeaxanthin intake determines how much is available for her baby’s brain and eye development, and to support her health. The body doesn’t make lutein and zeaxanthin, so they must come from food, dietary supplements, or a combination.
There is no global health organization recommendation for the dietary intake of lutein and zeaxanthin during pregnancy.7 However, health professionals suggest consuming 10 milligrams of lutein and 2 milligrams of zeaxanthin daily to support eye health and to insure adequate concentrations of lutein and zeaxanthin in the retina.8 Worldwide, many people consume far less than the suggested each lutein and zeaxanthin on a daily basis.9-13
DHA for Baby’s Brain and Eye Health
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is an omega-3 fat, is present in every cell of the body. It is the most abundant omega-3 fat in the brain and in the retina, and it’s considered vital for visual development during pregnancy.14-16
Babies whose moms consumed more DHA during pregnancy or had higher levels in their blood tended to have better vision and brain function.17-19
DHA is found naturally in seafood, and in the algae that ocean-going fish and shellfish consume. Some packaged foods also contain added DHA. During pregnancy, mom supplies her child with DHA that is stored in her body, and from the food she eats. Experts recommended a daily minimum of 200 milligrams of DHA during pregnancy.20
Women who avoid fish, or eat very little, may not be consuming the recommended amount of DHA during pregnancy. 21,22 Dietary supplements of DHA can help women achieve the suggested daily intakes.22
Children of women who took 600 milligrams of DHA as a dietary supplement during the last two trimesters of pregnancy had improved attention span during the first year of life, the beneficial effects of which may persist into preschool.23-25
You Get the Picture!
It’s possible to maximize your child’s vision and brain health by eating right when you’re expecting. Food is the preferred way to get the lutein, zeaxanthin, and DHA you and your baby require, but when that’s not possible, dietary supplements are suitable for filling in nutrient gaps to help provide your baby the brightest start possible.
1. National Institutes of Health, National Eye Institute. Information for Healthy Vision. https://nei.nih.gov/healthyeyes/howwesee
2. Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute, Micronutrient Information Center. Carotenoids. 2016. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/carotenoids
3. American Optometric Association. Caring for Your Vision. Lutein and Zeaxanthin. https://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/caring-for-your-vision/diet-and-nutrition/lutein
4. Johnson EJ, Vishwanathan, R, Scott TM, Schalch W, Wittwer J, Hausman D, Davey A, Johnson MA, Green RC, Gearing M, Poon, L. Serum carotenoids as a biomarker for carotenoid concentrations in the brain. FASEB J, 2011; 25.
5. Johnson EJ. Role of lutein and zeaxanthin in visual and cognitive function throughout the lifespan. Nutr. Rev. 2014;72:605. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25109868
6. Zielińska MA, Wesołowska A, Pawlus B, Hamułka J. Health effects of carotenoids during pregnancy and lactation. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):838. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579631/
7. Ranard KM, Jeon S, Mohn ES, Griffiths JC, Johnson EJ, Erdman JW. Dietary guidance for lutein: consideration for intake recommendations is scientifically supported. Eur J Nutr. 2017;56(Suppl 3):37. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5715043/
8. American Academy of Opthalmology. How is AMD diagnosed and treated? https://www.aao.org/eye-health/diseases/amd-treatment
9. Granado F, Blázquez S, Olmedilla B. (2007). Changes in carotenoid intake from fruit and vegetables in the Spanish population over the period 1964–2004. Public Health Nutrition, 2007;10(10):1018.
10. Mares-Perlman JA, Millen AE, Ficek TL, Hankinson SE. The body of evidence to support a protective role for lutein and zeaxanthin in delaying chronic disease: Overview. J. Nutr. 2002;132:518S–524S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11880585
11. Lucarini M, Lanzi S, D’Evoli L, Aguzzi A, Lombardi-Boccia, G. Intake of vitamin A and carotenoids from the Italian population: Results of an Italian total diet study. Int J Vitam Nutr Res 2006;76:103. https://bit.ly/2OnVOay
12. Manzi F, Flood V, Webb K, Mitchell P. The intake of carotenoids in an older Australian population: The blue mountains eye study. Public Health Nutr. 2002;5:347. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12020387
13. Alvarado-Ramos K, De Leon L, Fontes F, Rios-Castillo, O. Dietary Consumption of Lutein and Zeaxanthin in Panama: A Cross-Sectional Study. Current Developments in Nutrition 2018;2:(9). https://academic.oup.com/cdn/article/2/9/nzy064/5067297
14. Lauritzen, L, Hansen HS, Jørgensen MH, Michaelsen KF. The essentiality of long chain n-3 fatty acids in relation to development and function of the brain and retina. Prog Lipid Res, 2001; 40(1-2):1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11137568
15. Salem N, Litman B, Kim HY, Gawrisch K. Mechanisms of action of docosahexaenoic acid in the nervous system. Lipids 2001;36(9):945. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11724467
16. Crawford MA. The role of essential fatty acids in neural development: implications for perinatal nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 1993;57(5 Suppl):703S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7682751
17. Judge MP, Harel O, Lammi-Keefe CJ. A docosahexaenoic acid-functional food during pregnancy benefits infant visual acuity at four but not six months of age. Lipids 2007;42(2): 117.
18. Innis, SM, Friesen, RW. Essential n-3 fatty acids in pregnant women and early visual acuity maturation in term infants. Am J Clin Nutr, 2008;87(3):548.
19. Malcolm CA, McCulloch DL, Montgomery C, Shepherd A, Weaver LT. Maternal docosahexaenoic acid supplementation during pregnancy and visual evoked potential development in term infants: a double blind, prospective, randomised trial. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed. 2003;88(5):F383. https://fn.bmj.com/content/fetalneonatal/88/5/F383.full.pdf
20. Koletzko B, Cetin I, Brenna JT for the Perinatal Lipid Intake Working Group. Consensus statement- Dietary fat intakes for pregnant and lactating women. Br J Nutr, 2007;98:873. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17688705 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17688705
21. Eickstaedt, M, Beck KL, Conlon, Cathryn A. New Zealand women have suboptimal intakes of long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids during pregnancy—a cross sectional study. N Z Med J 2017;130. https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/read-the-journal/all-issues/2010-2019/2017/vol-130-no-1462-22-september-2017/360
22. Greenberg JA, Bell SJ, Ausdal WV. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy. Rev Obstet Gynecol. 2008;1(4):162. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19173020
23. Colombo J, Gustafson KM, Gajewski BJ, Shaddy DJ, Kerling, EH, Doty T, Brez CC, Carlson, SE. Prenatal DHA supplementation and infant attention. Pediatr Res. 2016;80(5):656. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5164926/
24. Colombo J, Carlson SE, Cheatham CL, Fitzgerald-Gustafson KM, Kepler A, Doty T. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in infancy reduces heart rate and positively affects distribution of attention. Pediatr Res. 2011;70:406. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3172991/
25. Colombo J, Carlson SE, Cheatham CL, Shaddy DJ, Kerling EH, Thodosff JM, Gustafson KM, Brez CC. Long-term effects of LCPUFA supplementation on childhood cognitive outcomes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;98:403. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23803884