ABC with Omega-3

    Nutrition is an important factor in providing children with the building blocks they need for optimal cognitive development, and recent research highlights the role omega-3 fatty acids may play in reading, cognition and behaviour in children.

    ‘You are what you eat’ is an adage that takes on new meaning if one considers the nutritional needs of the growing and developing brain of young children and the way in which these needs may well impact on their later, adult lives.


    The brain is part of the nervous system and consists mostly of fat. The building blocks of the brain and nervous system originate naturally from the diet, a fact which generates much research into the role of the diet in cognitive development. Healthy fats and oils derived from oily fish, nuts, seeds and other plant oils are recommended to support the optimal development of healthy brain and nerve cells.


    So, just how important, exactly, are omega-3s in cognitive and behavioural development? According to The Journal of Developmental Neuroscience: ‘The dietary requirements for essential fatty acids and the possibility of a specific role for the polyunsaturated fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the most controversial areas in infant nutrition. DHA is found in unusually high concentrations in the brain and is selectively accumulated during foetal and infant brain growth. DHA can be synthesised through a complex series of chain elongation-desaturation reactions from alpha-linolenic acid, but the efficiency of this process in young infants is not clear.’1 Although clinical studies on dietary intake of DHA in babies and young children have yielded varied results, they predominantly show that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal cognitive development.

    Omega-3s and brain development

    As well as being present in the brain from before birth, DHA is also present in breast milk, indicating the specific need for this nutrient in the infant’s diet. Low dietary intakes of DHA are believed to contribute to learning and behavioural problems. Clinical studies on the potential benefits of omega-3 supplementation to cognitive development have shown some variable and even conflicting results, so further research is needed to clarify the exact roles, requirements and dietary recommendations of omega-3 fatty acids in children.


    What are they?

    Omega-3 fatty acids are classified as poly-unsaturated fatty acids and are also referred to as long-chain fatty acids as their carbon atoms appear in a chain-like structure.

    What do they do?

    Omega-3 fatty acids help with the growth and development of brain and nervous system tissues. They play a supportive role in cognitive development in children and memory and concentration in children and adults. They also help to maintain cardiovascular and joint health as well as supporting the immune system.

    Which are the most important?

    Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are two important omega-3 fatty acids which have the above-mentioned health benefits.

    Research findings so far:

    Improved relay of messages between brain cells: Researchers investigating the mechanism of omega-3s supporting memory found that increased DHA intakes were associated with increased levels of DHA in the hippocampus, the memory centre of the brain.2

    Improved motor development milestones: An Italian study on 1 160 infants evaluated motor development in DHA-supplemented babies, showed improvements in World Health Organisation developmental milestones. Babies supplemented with DHA were able to sit without support 1.5 weeks sooner. Additional results showed improvements in the fine motor skills required for reaching to touch an object and bringing a toy to the mouth. The results also showed an improvement in the time taken for a child to say their first comprehensible word.3

    ABC with Omega-3

    Improved problem solving: Babies given an infant formula supplemented with DHA showed improved cognitive skills. Researchers studied 229 infants, who received either formula supplemented with DHA or traditional infant formula with no added DHA. At the age of nine months the infants were given a problem-solving test which involved a sequence of steps to get a rattle. Babies who received the DHA-enriched formula had more success in getting to the rattle and showed more intentional behaviours that enabled them to reach the rattle.4

    Better attention span: A US study on 70 toddlers between 12 and 18 months investigated behavioural patterns in relation to their mothers’ prenatal DHA intake. Better attention span was found in toddlers with mothers who had higher DHA levels in their breast milk and DHA intake before and at birth.5

    Improved reading ability: A recent UK-based study investigated the effects of 600 mg of DHA supplementation per day in healthy seven- to nine-year-old children and their reading performance. Results showed a significant improvement in the reading ability of the children who were underperforming in reading at the start of the study.6 Another study investigating the effects of omega-3 on literacy in children with ADHD, showed that increased DHA status may improve reading ability in children with learning difficulties.7


    It is important to remember that not all fats are bad and there are those, such as the omega-3s, that must be included in your diet. Children tend to snack far too much on unhealthy deep-fried potato chips, corn chips, cheese puffs, nachos style snacks and even cheese-flavoured biscuits. These highly processed, high fat, snack foods may sometimes be the child’s main dietary source of fats and oils, and they certainly do not support developmental needs.

    Which foods provide DHA and EPA?

    Oily fish including salmon, sardines, mackerel and pilchards are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids. With tinned fish such as tuna, the fish itself may be rich in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), but the vegetable oil that it is preserved in does not contain any of these omega-3 oils.

    Nutritional DHA and EPA supplements contain fish oil, or omega-3 oils from fish origin, or cod liver oil.

    For vegetarians, or infants and children who are allergic to fish oils, a diet rich in flaxseeds and other plant sources of omega-3 supports long-term sufficient production of DHA and EPA. Numerous comparative studies comparing the efficacy of fish omega-3 (with a high DHA and EPA) with that of flax alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) have shown that there is a more therapeutic benefit from fish. However, positive results are still achieved through taking flax, the effects may just take longer to show. In short, evidence-based science indicates that DHA and EPA are preferable and ALA is beneficial.


    Heavy metal pollution in fish is a risk, which is why companies and manufacturers should source omega-3 ingredients that have undergone stringent safety tests. Products such as flaxseed, evening primrose and borage oils should also be tested for environmental toxins such as pesticides.


    Even though more research is required to help us better understand the role of omega-3s in the development of the human brain, it is hard to ignore the potential benefits. Research clearly suggests that including omega-3-rich foods, infant formulas and supplements provides beneficial effects on cognitive development. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that infants who display superior performance in problem solving tasks tend to have superior cognitive skills later in childhood. It is therefore possible that the beneficial effects of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may extend well beyond infancy.

    Editor’s note: Plant sources of omega-3 such as hemp, flax and chia can be grown virtually anywhere. Wild, oily, cold water fish is not easily available everywhere. If you found this article interesting, read Benefits of Listening to Music in the Classroom or Back to School with No Stress.


    1. Innis SM. The role of dietary n-6 and n-3 fatty acids in the developing brain. Dev. Neurosci. 2000 Sep- Dec; 22(5-6):474-80.
    2. Connor S, et al. DHA supplementation enhances high-frequency, stimulation-induced synaptic transmission. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism. 2012; 37(5): 880-87.
    3. Agostoni C, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation and time at achievement of gross motor milestones in healthy infants: a randomized, prospective, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009; (89):64-70.
    4. Drover J, et al. Three Randomized Controlled Trials of Early Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation on Means-End Problem Solving in Nine-Month-Olds. Child Development. 2009.
    5. Kannass KN, et al. Maternal DHA levels and toddler free-play attention. Dev Neuropsychol. 2009; (34):159-74.
    6. Richardson J, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid for reading, cognition and behaviour in children aged 7-9 years: a randomised, controlled trial – The DOLAB Study. PLOS One. September 2012, (7), Issue 9, e43909.
    7. Gabbay V, et al. A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Tourette’s Disorder. Pediatrics. 2012 May 14.
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