29 October 2019

Consuming seafood during pregnancy could improve attention capacity in children

It has been found that there is a relationship between the consumption of various types of seafood during pregnancy and attention outcomes in children up to the age of eight.

When it comes to pregnancy, there are a few grey areas where seafood is concerned. For example, some types of fish contain more mercury than others, which could pose certain risks during pregnancy.

The list of fish to avoid includes swordfish, shark and marlin. There are, however, other kinds of seafood that are considered safe to consume during pregnancy, and now scientists have found that eating a seafood-rich diet during early pregnancy is associated with better attention outcomes in children. 

Food-frequency questionnaires

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, looked at 1 641 mother-child pairs from the INMA Environment and Childhood Project, a Spanish study where the role of pollutants during pregnancy and their effects on children was researched.

During their pregnancies, mothers were required to complete a number of food-frequency questionnaires which assessed how often they ate more than 100 various food items, which included various types of seafood. Data on the children's dietary habits were collected using the same questionnaires at the ages of one, five and eight years old.

Adding to earlier research

When the children turned eight, they were required to complete an Attention Network Task (ANT), a computer-based neuropsychological test which is designed to assess attention function. The outcomes of the ANT, which were the number of omission errors made in relation to target stimuli and the speed of responses to stimuli were assessed by the researchers. 

The study adds to earlier research which analysed children at the age of five. Jordi Júlvez, researcher in the Childhood & Environment programme at ISGlobal and lead author of the study said, "The consumption of seafood during the first trimester of pregnancy had a greater effect on children's attention capacity than the consumption of seafood later in pregnancy or at five years of age, by which time some neurodevelopment process have already been completed."

Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), play a fundamental role in in complex biological processes and are involved in neurological development. Due to the fact that these nutrients participate in the definition of foetal brain structure and function, they have a large impact on later neuropsychological development.

Attention is a complex behaviour which children need to learn, because it precedes crucial functions, like memory. "We focused on the attention function because attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is common in school-age children," said Jordi Sunyer, head of the Childhood & Environment programme at ISGlobal. 

Need for more research

The study also looked at the differences between various types of fish and seafood, namely fatty fish, lean fish, canned tuna and shellfish. Children whose mothers ate a diet rich in different types of seafood scored very well on attention tests, and so did children of women with a diet only rich in fatty fish. It was found that scores were lower in children whose mothers relied on canned tuna or shellfish for their seafood intake. 

Although the study seemed to deliver positive results, authors of previous research have found that there is also a link between consuming fish during pregnancy and childhood obesity and increased blood pressure.

Experts insist on the need for more research on the topic in order to determine which species of fish and what quantities could be beneficial for foetal development. 

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules