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Do Infants and Children Need Omega-3 Supplements

DHA’s effect on Infant and Toddler Development

If you blink, you might find yourself wondering how your infant went from babbling to suddenly talking, crawling, and running! Supporting those changes taking place in their little bodies starts with making sure you’re supporting their growth and development early on.

Infants require adequate nutrition to support their early development and a big part of that comes from EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid).

What are Omega-3s? Are DHA and EPA different than Omega-3 fatty acids?

DHA and EPA are both types of Omega-3 acids. Essential fatty acids, like Omega-3, play such an important role in our lives and are composed of three main types.

The three main types of Omega-3 acids are:

  • ALA (Alpha-linolenic Acid) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. You’ll find it in flaxseed oil, canola, soy, perilla, and walnut oils. ALA is similar to both eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
  • EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid taken by mouth for some heart-related conditions including clogged arteries (coronary artery disease), to prevent or treat heart attacks, and to reduce levels of blood fats called triglycerides in people with very high levels.

  • DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid) is a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in cold-water  fatty fish, such as salmon. It is also found in fish oil supplements, along with eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Vegetarian sources of DHA come from seaweed. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for your heart, and your body needs DHA for a healthy brain.

Why are they called essential fatty acids?

Well, that’s because our bodies don’t produce them on their own and we need to obtain them from food or supplementation. Thanks, body.

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats. EPA and DHA occur naturally in every day consumed fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. These are two that are widely found in over-the-counter supplements. You’ve probably encountered dozens of types on the market but the most common are fish oil, krill oil, and algae oil-based.

We’re sure you still have a lot of questions about Omega-3s. You may even be wondering what the benefits for kids are. Let’s look into some answers.

Which Omega-3 do I take/give, DHA or EPA?

Prior to birth, the placental transfer from the mother will give your infant the proper amount of DHA for development. After birth, babies can receive DHA through breast milk, formulas that are fortified with DHA, or a DHA supplement. DHA has such a prominent influence on the structure and foundational functions of the development of your child’s brain–not having adequate Omega-3 levels can have lasting implications for long-term development.

Some observational and intervention studies show that a child with adequate DHA will see support with:

  • Attentional control
  • A healthy immune response to allergens
  • Motor skill development
  • Better performance with language and cognition
  • Eye and Retinal development

EPA is critical for any age, but because EPA is not stored in significant levels in the brain and retina, DHA is regarded as the most important Omega-3 for early development. When you hear your doctor or someone mention Omega-3s, they’re most likely referring to DHA.

Do all infants, babies and toddlers require Omega-3 supplementation?

There are a lot of factors when determining if your child needs Omega-3 supplementation. It could be the sources of their nutrition and the amount of EPA and DHA they get through those sources. Let’s also not forget as they grow, needs will change.

Breastfed Infants
If you’re a breastfeeding mother, you should consider your Omega-3 levels. There is evidence that many women in their childbearing years do not consume enough Omega-3. If you were to test and find your Omega-3 levels at acceptable levels, your infant or toddler may not need additional supplementation. If you can’t get tested, you should consider following the same supplementation plan as formula-fed infants.

Formula-fed Infants
Most store formulas will be fortified with DHA but the actual quantity of DHA may be less than ideal. It’s advisable to have additional supplementation of Omega-3 fish oil.

If your young child could consume 2-3 servings of fish a week, they should be ok. For many children, this is easier said than done. Getting those proper dietary sources of EPA and DHA is vital and consuming a fish oil supplement could be an easier solve.

Does Omega-3 help childhood behavioral issues?

It can be extremely challenging when your child is acting out. They could be argumentative or disruptive–plus plenty exhausting to us parents.

In an Oxford-Durham study, children 5 - 12 were supplemented with fish oil to see if the effects would help reduce ADHD-type symptoms. Remarkably, it did–with most of the children showing improvement in reading, spelling, and memorial performance.

Researchers in another study in the Journal of Dietary Supplements concluded that “Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation alone or in combination with other nonpharmacological treatments is effective in improving children’s mental health.”

We’ll save you the massive list of studies (and here and here and here) showing the benefits, but know that they all support the use of Omega-3 supplementation.

Can your child have their levels of Omega-3 fatty acids tested?

There is a test called the Omega-3 index. The test measures the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in your child’s red blood cells and how it reflects their levels in the brain. You should be aiming for above 8%.

If you’re breastfeeding, you can also get the Omega-3 index test to make sure you’re getting proper supplementation. The more mama gets, the more baby gets.

Being on top of your child’s health early lays the foundation for their long-term well-being. It’s always worth exploring deficiencies and finding the right supplement to aid them.