The association of maternal polyunsaturated fatty acids during pregnancy with social competence and problem behaviours at 7 years of age: The MEFAB cohort

Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2019 May;144:1-9. doi: 10.1016/j.plefa.2019.04.002. Epub 2019 Apr 12.


Background: The prenatal exposure to maternal n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) might influence the development of social competence and internalizing and externalizing behaviours of the child, because of the numerous functions of PUFAs within the nervous system.

Methods: To analyse the association of selected maternal PUFAs (i.e., AA, EPA, DHA, total n-6, total n-3, and the n-6:n-3 ratio) measured during gestation with childhood social competence and problem behaviours, we examined 311 mother-child pairs from the Maastricht Essential Fatty Acid Birth (MEFAB) cohort. For each woman, PUFA-specific changes in relative concentrations were calculated by identifying the best-fitting curve of PUFA concentration by linear splines of gestational age. The associations of changes in maternal PUFAs in early and late pregnancy with childhood social competence, total problems, internalizing and externalizing behaviours, measured with the Child Behaviour Checklist 4/18 at age 7, were investigated with linear regression analyses adjusted for maternal and children's socio-demographic characteristics.

Results: In late gestation (i.e., from gestational week 30), an increase in AA was associated with higher social competence, while a decrease in total n-6 was associated with lower externalizing behaviours. No other significant associations were found.

Discussion: In this prospective study, increasing maternal AA and decreasing total n-6 were associated with improved social competence and externalizing behaviours, respectively, in 7-year old children. Nonetheless, the clinical significance of the identified associations is modest and further investigations are warranted to clarify the relationship between maternal AA and total n-6 during pregnancy and childhood social and behavioural development.

Keywords: Biomarkers; Developmental origins of health and disease; Polyunsaturated fatty acids; Prenatal programming; Problem behaviours; Social competence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Mass Index
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Fatty Acids, Essential / blood
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3 / blood
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6 / blood
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated / blood*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Phospholipids / blood
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*
  • Problem Behavior / psychology*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Social Skills*


  • Fatty Acids, Essential
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-3
  • Fatty Acids, Omega-6
  • Fatty Acids, Unsaturated
  • Phospholipids