Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for the healthy growth and development of children and are generally safe. Oily fish is the best source of food, but plant sources such as flaxseed can also provide omega-3 fatty acids.
Some people choose to give an omega-3 supplement to children, especially if a child doesn’t eat fish. This approach can have potential learning, attention, and academic performance benefits.
In this article we explain what omega-3 fatty acids are and how to get them in food. In addition, we are investigating the correct dosage of nutritional supplements for children and possible safety issues of nutritional supplements.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for human health.
The body cannot make omega-3 fatty acids on its own, so people have to get them through food.
The three main types of omega-3 fatty acids are:
- Alpha Linolenic Acid (ALA)
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
ALA is found in some plant foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. DHA and EPA are found in fish and their oils.
Fish themselves do not synthesize the omega-3 fatty acids. Instead, they accumulate them in their tissues by eating microalgae and phytoplankton, which they synthesize.
The human liver can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but this conversion is limited and may be less than 15%.
Therefore, experts advise that people consume foods that are a source of EPA and DHA or take a dietary supplement to increase the levels of omega-3 in the body.
The best food sources for DHA and EPA are oily fish such as:
In addition, manufacturers enrich some foods such as eggs, yogurt or milk with omega-3 fatty acids.
When feeding fish to children, it is important to watch out for bones as they can be a choking hazard.
Children can also take an omega-3 fish oil supplement. If a child follows a vegetarian or vegan diet, they can take a DHA and EPA supplement made from algae.
From birth to 2 years of age, the brain gains most of its weight, but it develops fully during childhood and adolescence.
During this time, omega-3s, especially DHA, are essential to children’s healthy growth, development, and academic performance.
The following sections discuss this in more detail and examine the evidence.
Supports child development
Omega-3 fatty acids support a child’s healthy development can begin before birth and continue through infancy.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), better infant health outcomes can be achieved if the infant’s parents consume at least 8 ounces (ounces) of DHA-containing seafood per week during pregnancy and breastfeeding or breast feeding.
DHA is critical to the development of a child’s brain and retina, as well as healthy growth and birth weight.
The NIH adds that although seafood contains varying amounts of methylmercury, the health benefits of consuming moderate amounts of seafood during the prenatal phase outweigh the mercury risks.
May improve ADHD symptoms
Omega-3 fatty acids change the cell membranes in the central nervous system and can help with brain processes in people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
In a 2018 review, international experts pointed out that omega-3 supplements can produce a small but significant reduction in ADHD symptoms while maintaining a tolerable safety profile.
While the review also pointed to additional benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, including improved sleep quality and cognitive function, scientists need more research to confirm these.
However, according to the NIH, the results for omega-3s that benefit from ADHD are contradicting, although EPA and DHA can improve parent-rated oppositional behavior.
Potentially fewer allergies
In a study of 3,285 Swedish children, researchers found that regular fish consumption early in life can reduce the risk of allergies up to the age of 12, particularly rhinitis and eczema.
However, the NIH reports inconsistent results for studies evaluating omega-3 and child allergies, suggesting the association warrants further study.
Can improve sleep and school performance
Omega-3s are essential for brain health, and some studies link their consumption to children’s sleep and performance.
For example, a 2014 study found that children in the UK had low blood levels of DHA and a 16-week DHA supplement program resulted in fewer wakefulnesses and more sleep each night.
The researchers also stated that around 40% of children in the United States might have a clinical problem with sleeping, and suggested that omega-3s might be beneficial.
A 2020 study of Mexican teenagers found that those with higher plasma DHA levels had 30 minutes longer sleep times when they had to get up on weekends when school and work were not restricted. The authors suggest that increasing the duration of sleep by 20-30 minutes can be beneficial for academic results.
Children with low literacy and low omega-3 intake, in particular, can benefit most from omega-3 supplements, according to a 2014 review.
In addition, clinical studies in school-age children indicated that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can improve cognitive development and school performance in these children.
Some research shows virtually no serious side effects from omega-3 supplementation, with dyspepsia and nosebleeds being the most common.
However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that scientists need to do more research to determine the full effects of eating omega-3 fats on the body. They recommend that people speak to their child’s doctor before giving the child any nutritional supplements.
The FDA advises people not to eat fish with the highest levels of mercury. These include:
- King mackerel
- Bigeye tuna
- Orange roughy
- Tile fish
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has not set specific intake recommendations for EPA and DHA. Instead, they recommend the daily requirement for ALA, or total omega-3 fatty acids, according to a child’s age:
- 0.5 grams (g) total omega-3 fatty acids from birth to 12 months
- 0.7 g ALA for 1-3 years
- 0.9 g ALA for 4-8 years
- 1.2 g ALA for men and 1 g for women for 9-13 years
- 1.6 g ALA for men and 1.1 g for women for 14-18 years
Since breast milk contains omega-3 fatty acids, the IOM bases its recommendations from birth to the 12th month on the equivalent intake for a breast-fed or breast-fed child.
According to the NIH, children only get around 40 milligrams (mg) of DHA and EPA from food. Diet supplements also contribute to children’s omega-3 fatty acids by adding around 100 mg to their average daily ALA intake.
However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests offering children a variety of food sources for omega-3s before turning to dietary supplements.
For example, they suggest serving fish in a kid-friendly way like salmon pusher, fish cakes, or baked fish nuggets. People can also add flaxseed oil to soups and casseroles and chia seeds to baked goods.
The FDA states that for children, one serving size of fish is one ounce by age 2 and increases to four ounces by age 11.
Children need omega-3 fatty acids for healthy growth, development and brain function.
Additionally, some evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful in preventing allergies, improving sleep and school performance, and relieving ADHD symptoms. Scientists, however, need to do more research on these fronts.
Caregivers can include oily fish in children’s diets or use plant sources such as flaxseed for children who do not eat fish.
Alternatively, children can take an omega-3 supplement but should consult their doctor first. In addition, children should refrain from consuming fish with a high mercury content.