Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats children require on a daily basis for proper development. A variety of healthy foods are rich in omega-3 fats. However, the omega-3 fatty acids known as eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid – also referred to as DHA – which are associated with proper cognitive function and behavior in children, are not as abundant in foods. In a recent study of school-aged children, lower DHA concentrations were associated with poor reading ability, memory performance and behavior, and emotional abilities.
Total Omega-3 Requirements
According to the Institute of Medicine, children ages 1 to 3 require 700 milligrams of total omega-3s daily, and children ages 4 to 8 need about 900 milligrams. Girls ages 9 to 13 require 1,000 milligrams and boys in that age group need 1,200 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids per day. Total omega-3 fatty acid recommendations include omega-3s from DHA, EPA and other forms – such as alpha-linolenic acid – also known as ALA. Omega-3 requirements are different from total dietary fat recommendations for kids ages 4 to 18, which are to obtain 25 to 35 percent of their calorie intake from fats.
Good sources of ALA for children include avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters, soy products and plant-based oils, especially canola, soybean, flaxseed and walnut oils. The main sources of dietary DHA and EPA are fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna, and purified fish-oil supplements. Seaweed provides vegetarian sources of DHA, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. According to Harvard School of Public Health, children's bodies can make small amounts of DHA and EPA by eating foods containing ALA.
Although DHA and EPA are associated with cognition and behavior in children in numerous studies, the Institute of Medicine has not established dietary reference intakes, or DRIs, specifically for DHA or EPA in children. However, the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids suggests children ages 1 1/2 to 15 consume 15 milligrams of combined DHA plus EPA per pound of their body weight daily.
Although fish is an excellent source of DHA and EPA, it often contains contaminants found in oceans, lakes and rivers, which may be harmful for young children. Mercury is an example of a neurotoxin found in fish that can negatively affect a child's cognitive development when consumed in excess. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends young children limit fish intake to 12 ounces of low-mercury selections, such as salmon, light tuna, catfish and Pollock, weekly. Purified DHA supplements are generally free from harmful levels of contaminants, such as mercury, and may be appropriate for your child if your pediatrician recommends it.
- Plos One: Low Blood Long Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids in UK Children are Associated with Poor Cognitive Performance and Behavior: A Cross-Sectional Analysis from the DOLAB Study
- Institute of Medicine: Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients
- Harvard School of Public Health: Ask the Expert: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- American Pregnancy Association: Omega-3 Fish Oil and Pregnancy
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish
- Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids: Dietary reference intakes for DHA and EPA