News | Published February 25, 2013

Ask the pediatrician: Omega-3 supplement beneficial to children?

Dr. C.,

Is it beneficial for children to take an Omega-3 supplement if they are not eating fish at least two times a week? I have also read that Omega-3 may be beneficial to children who exhibit signs for ADHD. How true is this?

This is a very good question – and we are starting to see some studies on this and hopefully some concrete answers. There are definite benefits from having Omega-3’s in our diet from birth through old age. Below is a review of Omega-3s from WebMD that I think does a good job explaining what Omega-3s are and their benefits. We don’t talk about this much in my practice, and maybe we should be looking at this closer. Hope this helps.

What are Omega-3s?

Omega-3s are essential fatty acids -- we need them for our bodies to work properly. One of their most important benefits is that they seem to have an anti-inflammatory effect.

“A lot of diseases, like heart disease and arthritis, seem to be related to an inflammatory process,” says Leopold. “Omega-3s can tune down the body’s inflammation, and that may be how they help prevent some of these chronic diseases.”

So how do Omega-3s benefit people at different ages? Here’s the rundown on the research. 

Keep in mind that few of these studies are definitive, and larger studies are needed to determine therapeutic benefit. Also, some studies used food sources of omega-3s, and others used Omega-3 supplements.

Always discuss the use of any medication or supplement with your doctor.

Omega-3s for infants, prenatal health, and pregnancy

Omega-3s are important for children’s health right from the start – actually, before they’re even born. Here’s some of the evidence:

  • Cognitive development. Some studies show that infants fed formulas enriched with the Omega-3 fatty acid DHA show improvements in hand-eye coordination, attention span, social skills, and intelligence test scores. Studies have shown that children born to mothers who took supplements of Omega-3s (DHA and EPA) during pregnancy and the during the first months of breastfeeding scored higher on cognitive tests at four years of age compared to children whose mothers did not take supplements of DHA and EPA.
  • Asthma risk. A 2008 study found that the teenage children of women who took fish oil during pregnancy were less likely to have developed asthma.
  • Growth. There’s some evidence that when Omega-3s are added to formula, it promotes growth and brain development in premature infants.
  • Preterm labor. A 2003 study found that women who ate eggs enriched with Omega-3s were less likely to go into premature labor than women who ate standard eggs.

Although none of these studies are conclusive, there’s good reason to make sure that infants – and pregnant women -- are getting their Omega-3s such as DHA and EPA.

Many infant formulas are now supplemented with DHA. A mother’s breast milk is an ideal source of Omega-3s, although it may be affected by how many Omega-3s she’s getting in her diet.

Omega-3s for children and teens

Some of the childhood conditions that have been studied include:

  • ADHD. Kids with ADHD may have lower levels of Omega-3s in their bodies than normal, and a few small studies have looked at fish oil supplements as a treatment. They found that the supplements might improve behavior, reduce hyperactivity, and boost attention in kids under 12.
  • Depression. Fish oil is often used as a treatment for depression in adults; there have been a few studies in children too. One small 2006 study of fish oil in depressed 6 to 12 year-olds found it helped their symptoms significantly.
  • Diabetes. One small study looked at kids who were at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that those who ate a high Omega-3 diet were less likely to develop the condition.
  • Asthma. Omega-3s may reduce inflammation in the airways, which could benefit those with asthma. One small study of 29 children with asthma found that those taking fish oil for 10 months had fewer symptoms than those who didn’t. However, other studies of Omega-3s as an asthma treatment have not found consistent evidence that they help.

Keep in mind that many of these studies were small and other studies have sometimes found contradictory evidence. More research needs to be done before we’ll know the full implications.