DHA & Brain Development in Children

Childhood is a period of huge brain growth and maturation. A child’s brain undergoes an amazing period of development from birth to the age of three – producing more than a million neural connections each second. Our latest blog discusses this development, in particular the important role of Omega-3 DHA fatty acids.

The development of the brain in childhood is influenced by many factors, including a child’s relationships, experiences and environment. Omega 3 fats, especially DHA, are also important in this growth and development, and as children continue to age.

DHA is important for:

  • Maintenance of normal brain function 
  • Normal visual development in infants
  • Normal heart function.

Maternal intake of DHA also contributes to normal brain and eye development in breastfed infants.


Development of the human brain continues throughout childhood and into adolescence, with spurts of development identified at 2 years, 7-9 years and during mid-adolescence. Tissue content of DHA is thought to be important for brain development because our frontal lobes – which are thought to be responsible for planning, problem solving, and focussed attention – are high in DHA, and their development is thought to depend on dietary intake of this omega 3 fat.

Low levels of DHA during childhood are linked to:

  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia


One of the key studies on the benefits of DHA in children investigated the effects of Omega 3 on reading and behaviour in primary school children (ages 6-10). The study involved 362 children from 74 schools and compared the effects of DHA supplementation with a placebo. Reading ability and behaviour both showed significant improvement in the DHA groups, with the poorest readers gaining the greatest benefits


DHA is an essential fatty acid. This means that the body is unable to manufacture it, so it must be provided in our diets or via supplements. The best food sources of DHA are Salmon, Fresh Tuna, Trout, Mackerel and Sardines. It is recognised that typical intake of these foods in children worldwide is low, which is why many foods are now fortified with Omega 3 fats. The problem with this is that fortification is often carried out with plant sourced omega 3, rather than fish oil, and the body cannot manufacture DHA from plant sourced Omega 3 very well.

The DHA typically found in oily fish is the best food source of omega 3 fats and is vitally important to brain development.

An Australian Study on DHA fortification was carried out. The study looked at “the effect of replacing egg, milk and yogurt with equivalent omega 3 rich foods on Omega 3 intake of Australian children.” This study showed that although Omega 3 levels increased slightly, DHA and Omega 3 levels in the blood were still not at optimal levels. The study concluded that fortified foods do not provide adequate DHA, and fish sources are still the best way of ensuring DHA consumption.


In order to ensure adequate DHA intake children need to eat oily fish at least twice a week. If they are not able to do this consistently, then fish oil supplements aimed at children are a good idea. Ensure that any supplement you choose is free from sugars and artificial flavours though – keep things as healthy as possible!

Written By Jenny Logan DNMed. (Jenny is a Nutritional Therapist who has worked with clients in Health Foods Stores and Private Clinics for over 20 years.)

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