The right nutrition is hugely important during the developmental stage of children. In fact, since brain development continues throughout childhood, and happens at a much faster pace in early years compared to the rest of the body, children are much more vulnerable to dietary deficiencies. That’s why there’s been much interest in the association between cognitive development and supplementation in children, particularly omega-3 fatty acids.
The role of omega-3 in brain development
The effect of supplementing with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA), particularly docosohexaenoic acid (DHA) during early childhood, has been extensively researched. A 2013 study found that the benefits of LC-PUFA in the first year may not be apparent until after 3-6 years of age, highlighting the important role that proper nutrition plays in a child’s first few years.1
The human brain is made up of 60% lipids, 20% of which are DHA - an omega-3 fatty acid (EFA). These essential fatty acids play a central role in brain tissue, forming the basic components of our brain’s membranes as well as modulating membrane fluidity, volume and enzyme activity.2
These EFAs also play an important role in our inflammation and immune reaction, helping to promote membrane synthesis, neural transmission and the growth of the dendritic spine (the tree-like extension that branches out from a neuron and helps transmit both internal and external electrical signals to the neuron’s body.3
There have been a number of studies that have shown a positive association between mothers who take an omega-3 supplement during pregnancy and cognitive development in children. One study found that a higher fish consumption during pregnancy was associated with better language and social skills, while another found that those children whose mothers consumed lower levels of seafood during pregnancy had lower IQ.4,5
Finally, researchers in Western Australia found that those children whose mothers supplemented with DHA during pregnancy showed significant improvements in hand and eye coordination and cognitive development at 2½ years than the other group.6 These findings suggest that DHA is important in the development of problem solving, memory and processing.
Omega-3 and enhanced reading abilities
Not only has an increased omega-3 intake been shown to enhance cognition in young children, it’s also been shown to improve learning ability in older children. A child’s reading age is a common test for general IQ and learning ability, and studies have found that supplementing with omega-3 significantly aids this process.
A 2012 study at the University of Queensland showed that children who took omega-3 supplements gained 1.9 months in reading age compared to the control group.7 Similarly, an Oxford study in 2013 analysed the blood samples of 493 children between 7-9 years who had below-average reading skills. The samples showed that, on average, the children had 2% below the recommended levels of DHA and EPA present in their blood. This suggests that the lack of omega-3 in their diets was contributing to their learning difficulties and was affecting their ability to process new information.
Cod liver oil is rich in both EPA and DHA, and is safe to give children. Weston A Price recommends a high-vitamin fermented cod liver oil that’s unheated, naturally produced and retains the natural vitamins, such as our Extra Virgin Cod Liver Oil.8 As general guidelines, they recommend the following dosage for children:
- Children age 3 months to 12 years: 1/2 teaspoon or 2.5 mL, providing 4650 IU vitamin A and 975 IU vitamin D.
- Children over 12 years and adults: 1 teaspoon or 10 capsules, providing 9500 IU vitamin A and 1950 IU vitamin D.
- Pregnant and nursing women: 2 teaspoons or 20 capsules, providing 19,000 IU vitamin A and 3900 IU vitamin D.
Cod liver oil is also a source of Vitamin D, which contributes to bone health and even healthy teeth development. Higher levels of Vitamin D from cod liver oil can help improve bone mineral density - a critical process in a child’s growth.9
Omega-3 and sleep
Omega-3 consumption, especially DHA, has also been shown to improve sleep quality in children. In fact, when children aged 7-9 were given DHA for 16 weeks, they experienced fewer wake episodes and 58 minutes more sleep per night compared to the control group. This suggests that DHA can help increase sleep efficiency and reduce sleep latency, though further research is needed to draw more conclusive results.10
DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important in normal brain development during a child’s early years and into adolescence. Not only does DHA help to regulate cognitive functions and brain development in the frontal lobes and cortex, it can also improve memory, thinking, reading, IQ and learning.
On the other hand, it’s clear that deficiencies in omega-3 can have detrimental effects, even potentially behavioural problems such as ADHD and stunted learning.
We all want to give our children the very best nutrition we can to help them develop a healthy, functioning brain, intelligent thinking and emotional intelligence. Increasing your child’s intake of omega-3 has been proven to help a child’s cognitive development, and is such a simple way to give them a head start in their critical early years.