Karlene Karst, RD
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for good health by everyone, and they are especially important during infancy and childhood. This is because the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and, to some extent, the omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) are critical for nervous system, brain, and retinal development.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are required for good health by everyone, and they are especially important during infancy and childhood.
This is because the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and, to some extent, the omega-6 arachidonic acid (AA) are critical for nervous system, brain, and retinal development.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (September, 2002) found that pregnant women who had higher DHA levels gave their babies a better chance at more developed brains. The study also found that mothers with more DHA in their blood had babies with better sleep patterns in the first 48 hours following delivery. It has been hypothesized that infant sleep patterns reflect the maturity of a child’s nervous system and are associated with more rapid development in the first year of life.
The omega-3 DHA and the omega-6 AA are key building blocks for healthy brain and eye development. DHA and AA are now being added to a few infant formulas; however, these still can’t replace the healthy fats that are naturally present in mother’s milk.
Childhood and Beyond
Many children have short attention spans. The energy and wonder of youth can spur kids from one activity to another in a blink, but when you notice that your child is unable to concentrate on one task, becomes bored with activities quickly, and is always looking for something else to do, then a behavioural problem may be present.
Behavioural disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are being increasingly diagnosed in school-age children. The exact cause is not known, but it appears to result from many factors, including maternal smoking, alcohol consumption, trauma to the head in early life, environmental toxins, and nutritional deficiencies. Studies have shown a deficiency in EFAs and trace minerals in patients with ADHD.
Dr. Michael Lyon, author of Is Your Child’s Brain Starving (Mind Publishing, 2002) has written that “Eighty percent of kids with ADHD have serious deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids.” (To read more on Dr. Lyon’s work with ADHD, see page 62.) These children also have increased intestinal permeability or “leaky gut,” which allows large molecules to pass through the intestine into the body (only small molecules should be moving through). This can put the child’s immune system under stress and lead to low-grade inflammation that can also affect the brain.
A study published in Pediatrics (January 2005) conducted on 117 children with developmental coordination disorders demonstrated the effectiveness of combining omega-3s and -6s. Thirty-two of the children were diagnosed with ADHD; 16 of them were given placebo, and 16 received 558 mg EPA, 174 mg DHA, and 60 mg of the omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). At the end of the three-month treatment, researchers saw significant improvements in the reading, spelling, and behavioural problems of the children in the treatment group. Seven of the 16 children getting omegas no longer met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD; only one child showed that level of improvement in the placebo group.
Better for Baby
During pregnancy mothers pass omega-3s via the placenta to their fetuses; therefore, mothers must have sufficient stores of omega-3s. If the mother is deficient in EFAs, her child will be, too.
Pregnant women can safely eat some fish at least once per week. Other healthy omega-3 sources include green leafy vegetables and nuts and seeds (walnuts and flaxseeds and their oils, particularly), but the best omega-3s for brain health come from fatty fish. A high-quality fish oil supplement is the ideal alternative to fish, providing omega-3s without heavy metal contamination.
Once on solid food, your child will benefit from a fish oil supplement. Cod liver oil now comes in flavours palatable for children, which can be given by the teaspoon or combined with food.
Fish with Lower Heavy-Metal
Content are safe to eat while pregnant. These include