Essential omega-3 fatty acids are called 'essential' because we can't make them ourselves and have to get them from food. These fats don't just come from fish. You can also find them in nuts, seeds, plant oils such as olive oil, some vegetables such as leafy greens, and grass-fed animal products.
EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are two omega-3 fats that are specifically linked to brain health. DHA, in particular, is critical for healthy foetal development of the nervous system and eyes. It may also improve the hand-eye coordination of toddlers and potentially raise I.Q.s in children.
The problem is that the omega-3 fatty acid provided by plant foods and grass-fed animal fats comes in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). This has many health benefits, including energy production, but it has to convert to EPA and DHA in our bodies – and the conversion rate is relatively low.
Marine omega-3 fats are the most available source of EPA and DHA which our bodies don't have to convert. So, to ensure you and your children are getting enough EPA and DHA in your diets, you need to consume oily fish or fish oil supplements.
Some interesting research results
There are conflicting opinions when it comes to how effective fish oils are for your child’s brain health and function.
More research is clearly needed, but there have been some compelling results worth mentioning, and a few of them are listed below.
As always, we encourage you to delve deeper and do some personal exploration to form your own opinion.
Fish oil consumption during pregnancy
1) One small 2006 study included 98 pregnant women who were supplemented with either 4g of fish oils or 4g olive oil daily from 20 weeks until birth.
Eighty-three mothers completed the trial and only non-smokers and those who ate less than two portions of oily fish per week were included. Once their children reached two and a half years of age, their growth and development were measured using validated tests.
Of the 72 assessed children, those whose mothers had taken fish oils scored higher for comprehension, average phrase length and vocabulary. They also had significantly higher scores for hand-eye coordination.
These results appeared to have no relation to other influencing factors such as the mother’s age or duration of breastfeeding. The researchers also stated that their findings showed relatively high doses of fish oils in the second half of pregnancy do not seem to have any adverse effects on neurodevelopment or growth.
2) A review of eight research articles concluded that consuming oily fish once or more per week during pregnancy increased positive foetal neurodevelopmental outcomes (related to growth, brain development or central nervous system development of their babies).
3) In 2004, research suggested that babies born to mothers with increased blood levels of DHA at birth had advanced attention spans well into their second year. During their first six months, these infants were also two months ahead of those born to mothers with lower DHA levels.
Fish oil consumption in infancy and childhood
1) Although they mentioned study disparity, researchers analysing the results of several trials concluded that omega-3 fats, particularly DHA, may improve brain function and mood in children.
They may enhance cognitive development, learning, memory and speed of performing cognitive tasks. It also appears that children with low literacy ability and those who rarely consume DHA benefit most from having increased omega-3s in their diet.
2) Another review of 15 trials looked at the relationship between DHA and learning and behaviour in healthy children.
The reviewers concluded that while the studies were diverse, and there were inconsistencies, overall, there appeared to be a benefit between DHA supplementation and brain activity, cognition and behaviour.
Studies also suggested a significant role for DHA in school performance. In their opinion, healthy children’s brains might benefit from increased DHA intake.
Studies imply that inadequate levels of DHA could be detrimental to learning and behaviour in otherwise healthy children.
3) A twelve-month micronutrient study involving nearly 800 six to ten-year-old schoolchildren, split between Australia and Indonesia, showed positive results between increased blood DHA and omega-3 fatty acids and verbal learning and memory.
There were similarly positive results in a 2009 trial with seven to nine-year-old children. After eating a daily fish-flour spread versus placebo for six months, they had significantly higher EPA and DHA levels. The children also showed considerably improved verbal learning ability and memory.
4) In 2012, a study was published which set out to assess whether supplementing with EPA and DHA compared to safflower oil could improve literacy and behaviour in children with ADHD.
After four months of taking the supplements, researchers noted that in the seven to twelve-year-old children taking fish oils, an increased proportion of DHA was associated with improved word reading and lower parent ratings of oppositional behaviour.
This was particularly evident in a subgroup of 17 children with learning difficulties. They also had improved spelling, were more able to divide attention, and had lower parent ratings for hyperactivity, restlessness and overall ADHD symptoms.
5) Poor sleep negatively affects cognitive function, focus, concentration and learning. It can considerably affect school performance and behaviour in children.
In 2014, researchers examined the link between essential omega-3 fatty acids and sleep regulation in seven to nine-year-olds from mainstream UK schools. Over 16 weeks, they split the children into groups taking an algal DHA supplement versus placebo to see if it might improve the sleep of children who were underperforming in reading.
There were noted associations between lower blood DHA levels and increased sleep disturbance. Parents of those in the DHA group observed improvement in sleep.
In a small subset of 43 children, their sleep was objectively assessed via actigraphy (a way of measuring sleep/wake cycles). In this group, DHA supplementation led to less disturbed sleep and an average of an extra 58 minutes of sleep per night.
Other health benefits of fish oils for your child
If you’re not convinced that fish oils can aid your child’s brainpower, there are still so many benefits to adding them to their diet.
Some research found that increased EPA (found in fish oils), as well as increased total omega-3 intake, may help to reduce anxiety and shyness in children.
They may also help to improve mood and depression and enhance sleep. EPA and DHA also support eye, skin and heart health and may help to reduce inflammation.
Should you feed children fish or give them a fish oil supplement?
Feeding children oily fish twice a week should provide them with all the EPA and DHA they require. Of course, this isn’t always achievable for various reasons. For example, your child may dislike it, or you may be concerned about mercury levels and other contaminants in fish.
The NHS state that children under the age of 16 should avoid eating shark, swordfish or marlin. This is because the high levels of mercury they contain can affect a child’s nervous system.
You can start introducing fish to babies from six months. Boys aged five or more can eat up to four portions of oily fish per week. Girls shouldn’t eat more than two as this may cause harm to an unborn baby in a future pregnancy.
With this in mind, many people find supplementing with fish oils is a more convenient and safe way to provide the EPA and DHA their young ones need.
Should you decide this is preferable, look for a good-quality, certified product that is free from contaminants and only uses sustainably sourced, non-endangered species.
We recommend QuattrO3 + P.S. Fish Oils for Children
Manufactured by WHC, QuattrO3 + P.S. is a unique complex of high-quality omega-3 fish oils and other nutrients, specially formulated to optimise children’s health and growth. It is designed to help them realise their full potential at school.
The addition of vitamin D3 helps promote healthy growth and bone development and aids the immune system.
The capsules are recommended for 3 to 14-year-olds and provide over 90% fish oil per serving (300mg EPA and 204mg DHA) as well as 400IU of vitamin D3. They are tutti-frutti flavoured soft gels, which disguise the fishy flavour and smell.
You can also feel safe in the knowledge that your child is getting a risk-free dose of these important nutrients. If your child has trouble swallowing capsules, cut them open and squeeze the contents onto cold foods such as yoghurts, pasta, rice or vegetables.
WHC has won serious praise for its range of unequalled omega-3 products. Indeed, two of them are ranked #1 and #3 by the independent U.S. laboratory Labdoor.
The bottom line
It’s interesting to note that the intake of marine foods in the mid-Upper Paleolithic period marked a significant turning point in human evolution.
While studies are contradictory, there are enough persuasively positive results to support the view that fish oils can improve children’s brain health. They may help with literacy, learning, memory, behaviour and school performance, particularly for those who are deficient in DHA.
The DHA provided by adequate oily fish consumption during pregnancy is vital for foetal neurodevelopment. It may also improve hand-eye coordination of toddlers and increase the attention spans of babies well into their second year.
All this aside, ensuring your child gets adequate amounts of omega-3 fish oils in their diet has so many other health benefits.
It’s common for children to eat insufficient amounts of fish. Perhaps getting your child to eat enough oily fish is tricky, or you’re concerned about the mercury in fish. If so, supplementing with a high-quality fish oil is a convenient and safe way to provide them with all the EPA and DHA they need.
Written by Rebecca Rychlik-Cunning, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.