Much has been publicised about the effects of omega-3s on the developing brain and the health of children. Studies suggest that long-chain omega-3s, in particular DHA, are important for normal development of the brain, eyes and central nervous system in younger children, however after the first few years of life the message around omega-3s is unclear. There is plenty of confusion from parents around how much omega-3 their child should be having, and when a supplement is necessary.
What the research says
There has been a lot of research around using omega-3s for treating children with behavioural and learning problems such as ADHD and dyslexia. Increasing omega-3 content may improve symptoms of these conditions, however more research needs to be done on whether healthy children, devoid of these problems, benefit from supplementation. The latest research, while inconclusive, suggests some children and teenagers may experience increased concentration and higher cognitive performance. A healthy diet for your child should include long-chain omega-3s.
How much do they need?
While we know children need omega-3s for normal development in early childhood, researchers don't know exactly how much is needed throughout growth to adulthood. For children 14+ the Heart Foundation recommends a daily intake of 500mg a day, the same as for adults. For children younger than this, the recommendations get a little hazy. It has been suggested that the 500mg should be adjusted for the lower weight of children in this category, however there are no guidelines around the best way to calculate this, or evidence to say it is appropriate.
The Government Nutritional Reference Values (NRVs) say children need between 40mg-70mg per day depending on their age. This recommendation is based on the average intake of this group. It has been shown that children only consume small amounts of long-chain omega-3s so it can be assumed this may not be the optimum intake.
As with adults, fish is the preferred source of omega-3s, however, it can be difficult to get children to eat certain foods, and fish often fits into this category. At present milk and yoghurt products are the primary focus of omega-3 fortification, and these also come packaged with protein and calcium needed for growth and development. Vaalia has a yoghurt for infants, a yoghurt for toddlers and one for school-aged children. There is also Dairy Farmers Kids' Milk. Because there is no set dose for children beyond the NRVs, it is difficult to say whether the amount found in these products will have any therapeutic benefit.
There are numerous omega-3 supplements now available for children, coming in many flavoured chewable capsules. For a healthy child, taking a fish oil supplement is generally considered safe and the child may even experience some benefits; however due to the haze around how much long-chain omega-3s they need it can be confusing trying to decide on the best product. The bottom line is, as with an adult supplement, look for the one containing the highest amount of DHA and EPA. The best one we found was Heron Vita Minis for Kids Omega Smart Capsules, which contain 225mg of EPA and DHA per tablet. For children it is not recommended to exceed the dose listed on the label.
It is the position of the Royal Children’s Hospital that long-chain omega-3s are important for eyes, learning and mental development, and should still be a part of your child’s diet. Research shows mixed results so their effectiveness is unclear, especially for healthy children. Each child is different and the addition of supplements and fortified foods may or may not be beneficial. You should not feel like a bad parent if you don’t include these products in your child’s diet.Fish should be encouraged as a part of a healthy diet, however.
If your child doesn’t like oily fish, try some milder flavoured fish such as bream, gemfish or flathead. Tuna in a pasta sauce, or otherwise flavoured to disguise the fishy taste, is also a good way to encourage your child to eat fish.