Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for healthy growth and development in children and are generally safe. Oily fish is the best food source, but plant sources like flax seeds can also provide omega-3s. Some people choose to give children an omega-3 supplement, especially if the child does not like to eat fish. This approach can have potential benefits for learning, attention and academic performance. In this article, we explain what omega-3 fatty acids are and how to get them from food. Additionally, we are looking at the correct dosage of supplements for children and any potential supplement safety concerns.
What are Omega-3s?
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for human health. The body cannot produce omega-3s, so people have to get them from food.
The three main types of omega-3s are:
alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
ALA is present in certain plant foods such as flax seeds, walnuts and rapeseed oil. DHA and EPA are found in fish and their oils. The fish themselves do not synthesize omega-3s. Rather, they accumulate them in their tissues by eating microalgae and phytoplankton, which synthesize them. Human liver can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but this conversion is limited, and maybe less than 14%. Therefore, experts advise people to consume foods that are a source of EPA and DHA or take a supplement to increase omega-3 levels in the body.
Sources of omega-3
The best dietary sources of DHA and EPA are oily fish such as:
In addition, manufacturers enrich certain foods such as eggs, yogurt or milk with omega-3s. It is important to check for bones when feeding fish to children, as they can pose a choking hazard. Children can also take an omega-3 fish oil supplement. If a child is on a vegetarian or vegan diet, they can take supplemental DHA and EPA made from seaweed.
Benefits of Omega-3s for Children
From birth to 2 years, brain growth is most important, but it develops fully during childhood and adolescence. During these times, omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are essential for the proper growth, development and academic performance of children.
1 Promote the development of the child
The intake of omega-3 to promote the development of the child can begin before the birth of the baby and continue during the early childhood. The health of the infant can be improved if the parent of the infant consumes at least 40 g of fish during pregnancy and lactation or breastfeeding maternal. DHA is essential for the development of a child’s brain and retina, as well as for healthy growth and birth weight. Although fish contain varying levels of methylmercury, the health benefits of consuming moderate amounts of seafood during the prenatal period outweigh the risks from mercury.
2 Improve symptoms of hyperactivity
Omega-3s modify cell membranes in the central nervous system and may help brain processes in people suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In a review of 2018, international experts advised that omega-3 supplements may produce small but significant reductions in ADHD symptoms while having a low profile tolerable security. While the review also suggested other benefits of omega-3s, including improved sleep quality and cognitive function, scientists need to do more research to confirm them.
3 Fewer allergies
In a study conducted by the NIH among 3 285 Swedish children, researchers found that regular consumption of fish in early life may reduce the risk of allergies up to the age of 12 years, especially rhinitis and eczema.
4 Improve sleep and school performance
Omega-3s are essential for brain health, and some studies link their consumption to sleep and children’s performance. For example, a study by 2014 found that children in the UK had low blood levels of DHA, and that a DHA supplementation program of 16 weeks led to fewer waking episodes and more sleep per night. The researchers also indicated that approximately 30% of children in the United States could have a clinical-level sleep problem and suggested that omega-3s may be beneficial.
A study of 2020 in Mexican adolescents found that those with higher levels of Plasma DHA had a longer sleep duration of 30 minutes longer on weekends, when school and work did not limit l time they had to get up. The authors suggest that an increase from 20 to 30 minutes of sleep duration may be beneficial for academic performance. In particular, children with low literacy and low omega-3 intake may benefit the most from omega-3 supplements. In addition, evidence from clinical trials in school-aged children suggests that omega-3 supplementation can improve cognitive development and academic performance in these children.
Amount of omega-3 for children
Here are the daily requirements for total ALA or omega-3, depending on the child’s age:
0.5 grams (g) of total omega-3 from birth at 12 month
0 , 7 g of ALA for 1 to 3 years
0.9 g of ALA for 4-8 years
1.2 g of ALA for boys and 1 g for girls from 9 to 12 years
1.6 g of ALA for boys and 1.1 g for girls of 14 at 16 years.
Human milk containing omega-3 fatty acids is recommended for this reason. Children get only about 40 milligrams (mg) of DHA and EPA from food. Supplements also contribute to children’s omega-3s, adding approximately 100 mg to their average daily intake of ALA.
Try to offer children a variety of food sources of omega-3s before turning to supplements. For example, serve fish in kid-friendly forms, like salmon fillets, fish cakes, or baked pieces of fish. Linseed oil can also be added to soups and stews and chia seeds to baked goods.
Banaschewski, T., et al. (2018). Supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the management of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Jansen, E. C., et al. (2020). Plasma DHA is related to sleep timing and duration in a cohort of Mexican adolescents.
Kuratko, C. N., et al. (2013). The relationship of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) with learning and behavior in healthy children: A review.
Montgomery, P., et al. (2014). Fatty acids and sleep in UK children: Subjective and pilot objective sleep results from the DOLAB study – a randomized controlled trial.
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