Omega-3 fatty acids and children’s health

Omega-3 fatty acids are very important for the good functioning of our eyes, as well as for parts of our brain associated with memory, learning, concentration, and logical sequence. If we don’t consume enough of these fatty acids (which are also called essential fatty acids, or poly-unsaturated fatty acids, or fish oils), there is an increased risk for reduced functioning in these areas.

Where can we find them?

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in abundance in fish (particularly fatty fish, such as sardines, mackerel, gilthead sea bream etc.) and in seafood. They are also found in significant quantities in other foods, such as olive oil and nuts.


What do we know about omega-3 fatty acids and the health of children?

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to present symptoms of low level omega-3 fatty acids, such as dry skin, dry hair, and excessive thirst. It has also been proven that these children have a tendency for low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood. There are some scientific data, which suggest that the severity of the symptoms of these children with attention deficit disorder is reduced when levels of omega-3 fatty acids increase. It seems that the administration of beneficial fatty acids can improve the clinical outcome of some children with attention deficit disorder.


How can I provide my child with the maximum possible levels of omega-3 fatty acids naturally?

Breast milk provides high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids from the child’s birth and throughout the duration of breastfeeding. On the contrary, a diet with cow’s milk for infants falls significantly short in quality and concentration of omega-3 fatty acids. Even milks with an additional supplement of omega-3 fatty acids in their composition, have not been found to significantly differ in relation to their effects, meaning that children who are exclusively fed with formula from birth, are increasingly likely to have a reduced IQ by 3 to 6 units, compared with babies who have exclusively breastfed for 6 months. This deficit seems to be even more important during the first days of life, when the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in the colostrum is measured to be particularly high. Mother’s diet significantly affects levels of omega-3 fatty acids in her milk, so a lactating mother should consume enough omega-3 fatty acids (fish, raw olive oil, nuts). The imposition of arbitrary restrictions in the dietary variety of the mother, which unfortunately takes place often with adverse consequences, is wrong.

On the introduction of solid foods after the first six months of life, an infant should be accustomed to table foods that contain high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids, such as olive oil on vegetables and meat. The introduction of fish should not be excessively delayed for fear of allergies. It has been proven that the delay in the gradual introduction of potentially allergenic foods does not “prevent” the occurrence of allergy, but on the contrary, deprives the child of a normal food variety, and can hinder the acceptance of these foods by the child, if they are introduced much later. Even infants with manifested allergy symptoms, such as blood in their stool or severe eczema, should become accustomed to table foods promptly, like other children.

Then, during the preschool and school age, the family table should include fish or seafood at least 2 times a week. For mothers and children it is important to mention that big ocean fish that have large amounts of mercury in their bodies should be completely avoided (e.g. large tunas, shark, swordfish etc.).


How beneficiary are dietary supplements with omega-3 fatty acids?

The research field is very active. So far, conclusions are controversial as to whether and to what extent there are benefits from the consumption of dietary supplements with omega-3 fatty acids by adults in the general population, and in children. They are often taken by people who think that they don’t consume enough fish in their diet. However, so far the analysis of the available studies is not explicit, and there are studies that have not shown improvements in the behaviour of these children. Often these studies have methodological problems, they are not of excellent quality, and, thus, at the moment, we cannot draw definite conclusions.

Besides these specific children with attention deficit disorder, the study has also focused on the general population of children. Can the administration of omega-3 fatty acids improve the performance of the normal, average child, in relation to memory, concentration, and vision? The answer is not definite here either: There have been studies, which have shown that children with learning disabilities had significant improvement in learning after taking omega-3 supplements, but again, these conclusions have not been confirmed by other studies.

The type of supplement should also be taken into consideration: it seems that the benefit can vary according to the origin of the omega-3 fatty acids in the compound, and according to the concentration of each compound.

We don’t know yet what the effects of fish oil in children without learning or behavior problems are. A study has shown that healthy adults that took a dietary supplement with fish oil showed improved performance in their concentration. It is not known whether this could also happen with children, or which factors may increase or decrease this effect.

Conclusively, we cannot support the general addition of omega-3 fatty acids supplements to the diet of all children. So far, research shows that some children may present a certain benefit, but further research is needed in order to certify that. Each child is different, and the difference in the behavior or the learning ability of a child is influenced by many factors.


Are there side effects from the intake of compounds with omega-3 fatty acids?

In general, these supplements are considered to be safe. However, some people show sensitivity, and may complain about a persistent bad taste in their mouth and about stomach upset, in particular in large doses. Other possible side effects that are mentioned are diarrhea, nausea, belching, while allergic reactions, such as rash, are rarely mentioned.

Are there children who should not take omega-3 fatty acids supplements?

Yes, and these are the ones with known oversensitivity or allergy to fish ingredients, the ones with bleeding disorder, and the ones who take anticoagulant medication.

Are they appropriate to use in children with ADHD?

It is up to the child’s doctor to decide whether a treatment with an omega-3 supplement would be useful for a certain child with attention deficit disorder. It often makes sense to give it, along with the administration of the special medication for ADHD. However, fish oil should not be used in place of the usual treatment and without the approval and participation of the child’s doctor in the decision making.


Stelios Papaventsis MRCPCH DCH IBCLC 2012


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