From foetus through to breastfeeding, toddler, teenage years and beyond, omega-3s are critical for growth, brain development, and reducing the risk of asthma.1
So do our children get sufficient omega-3s from their diet? Or should we best supplementing their diets in order to increase their levels?
What are omega-3s?
In short, omega-3s are fatty acids, which are vital components of your and your child’s cell membranes.
The three main omega-3 fatty acids are:
- alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
- eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
- docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
Levels of DHA are particularly high in the eyes, brain, and sperm cells (which is why teenage boys need a slightly higher intake than teenage girls).2
Why do children need omega-3s?
Omega-3s are a fatty acid that you and your children cannot produce on your own.
And because we cannot produce them on our own, we need to get them in our diet somehow.
These fatty acids are important for a variety of bodily functions, from cell growth to muscle activity.3
However, as with most nutrients, while getting enough omega-3s is important to avoid the various symptoms of a deficiency, it does not therefore follow that this will increase your child’s brain function and help them do better at school.
Omega-3s are most important in terms of the child’s growth and the development of their central nervous system. It is also important for cognitive function, visual development (specifically the ability to see clearly or sharply), heart health, blood pressure, and immune system.
Omega-3s can help protect children against allergies in early childhood.4
Therefore, an adequate intake of these fatty acids should be ensured from pregnancy, through to breastfeeding, and then the child’s early years.5
Some children may also consume or take omega-3s to help with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, or dyspraxia.
However, there is mixed evidence that this is helpful. Some 16 studies have found that omega-3 fatty acids can be important for memory, attention, learning, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.6
One small study also found that a high dosage of omega-3s daily helped improve attention in children without ADHD. 7
What science has established so far is that adults with low levels of omega-3 in their blood are more likely to be depressed and impulsive.
It is also important to understand that while omega-3s are vital to brain development and functioning, the causes of conditions such as ADHD and autism are various. Some causes are also unknown. It is not sufficient to rely on diet alone.8
Omega-3s could also be linked to a lower risk of asthma in children, as well as to decreased sleep interruptions.9
How much omega-3s do children need?
There are no strict official guidelines as to how much omega-3s children need, but even babies need roughly double the amount that adults need, simply because of all that growing. 10
One guideline recommends 0.5 grams per day for babies, 0.7 grams for toddlers, 0.9 grams for children aged four to eight years, around a gram for tweens, and 1.6 grams for teenage boys, and 1.1 grams for teenage girls.11
Generally, it is hard to take too many omega-3s, and they are considered safe, with few to no side effects.12
Taking extremely high amounts of fish oil as a supplement could leave an aftertaste or have an impact on the child’s breath by causing a bad smell. It could also cause indigestion, nausea, loose stools, or a rash.13
Increasing your child’s intake of omega-3
To meet your kids’ daily omega-3 needs, you can consider feeding them more salmon (fish patties, fish nuggets, and salmon sliders often go down well), sardines, mackerel, canned tuna with water, trout, herring, oysters, and beef. 14
Some children will love sardines on toast, or a salmon stir-fry, with soy sauce and noodles.
Other kids may appreciate a good fish pie, or else a pasta bake with fresh tuna.15
Fish and chips are always popular. However, it is worth noting that deep-fried fish will likely also have a high number of omega-6s, which compete, in a way, with omega-3s for the same enzymes.
If your child does not wish to eat fish, then flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, and soybeans, are also high in omega-3s.
But these replacements contain ALA omega-3s, of which your children can only convert a small proportion to DHA and EPA omega-3s. These last two types are the ones your children really need.16
Giving kids omega-3 supplements
For a variety of reasons, you might struggle to feed your children various portions of fish per week.
These could be dietary choices, budget, children who just do not like fish, or other reasons.
If that is the case, you could also consider supplements.
Supplements come in chewable capsules of various flavours. They usually contain fish oil.
Keep an eye out for supplements with high amounts of DHA and EPA omega-3s.17
Last updated: 10 February 2021
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile