Pregnancy, Baby, Toddler, Child
31st Jul 2020

Many parents are familiar with the importance of feeding their children a healthy diet that’s choc-a-block full of essential vitamins and minerals. After all, good nutrition helps to support all manner of important bodily functions as our little ones grow, play and explore the world around them.

But, what about the role of other essential nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids?

This family of healthy fats are particularly important for supporting your little one’s healthy brain development in the womb and beyond.

You may know that fish are a common dietary source of omega-3s, but do you know why they’re important for kids? What are the different types? And, why are they important for your little one?

Keep reading to discover all this and more, or use the links below to jump to the information you’re looking for:

What Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

As the name suggests, omega-3 fatty acids are a group of fats. However, although you might think of fats as having negative functions within the body, omega-3s play a range of important roles in supporting our health and wellbeing.

This is because omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are considered ‘essential fats’ due to their contributions to maintaining our good health.

Like many other essential nutrients (including minerals and some vitamins), our bodies are unable to produce omega-3 fatty acids and we must source them from the foods that we eat (1).

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What Is The Difference Between Omega-3, 6 And 9 Fatty Acids?

If you’ve been looking to the role of omega-3 in supporting your child’s health, you may have heard of two other fatty acids: omega-6s and omega-9s.

Although they share a name, these fats differ in both their chemical makeup and dietary sources. Discover the difference between omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids:

Omega 3

Perhaps the most well know omega family of fatty acids, there are three main types of omega-3s. They are alpha linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexanoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

The dietary sources of omega-3s differ depending on the type. ALA is mostly found in plant-based foods while DHA and EPA can be found in animal products such as oily fish.

To discover the difference between ALA, DHA and EPA as well as where to find them in your food, click here.

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Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Like omega-3 fatty acids, omega-6s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They are also considered ‘essential fats’, as our bodies cannot produce them.

But, while we may need to make extra effort to eat specific foods that are dietary sources of omega-3s (such as fatty fish and particular plant-based foods) omega-6s are typically abundant in the average Australian diet.

Vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, meat and eggs contain linoleic acid, which is the most common omega-6 fatty acid.

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Omega-9 Fatty Acids

Unlike omega-3s and 6s, omega-9 fatty acids are monounsaturated fatty acids. They also aren’t classed as ‘essential’ because our bodies can produce them.

Omega-9 fatty acids such as oleic acid are mostly found in plant-based foods such as avocados, almonds, olives and olive oil.

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The Different Types of Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Where To Find Them

There are three types of fatty acids that belong to the omega-3 family. These are alpha linoleic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

Discover the difference between them, why it’s important to get enough of all three, and dietary sources (1-6):

Alpha Linoleic Acid ALA

Alpha linoleic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid that can be predominantly found in plant-based foods. In particular, flaxseeds and walnuts are both sources of ALA.

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Docosahexanoic Acid DHA And Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

Conversely, DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids that are found in animal products, predominantly fatty fish.

Our bodies can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, however only in very small amounts, which cannot meet the body’s needs. As such, it’s important that we consume enough DHA and EPA in our diets

While both of these omega-3s are important, DHA’s role in brain development is particularly well established.

DHA is the primary fatty acid in the brain and eye retina. In fact, it makes up 97% of all omega-3 fatty acids in the brain and 93% in the retina.

During pregnancy and their first years of life, DHA is deposited in your child’s brain, which is important for supporting their brain development and cognitive function.

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Why Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important For Children?

Omega-3s are important for maintaining our health and wellbeing. Specifically, DHA and EPA play important roles in supporting the brain and nervous system’s healthy development and function.

As childhood is a period of rapid brain growth and development, it’s important for your little one to maintain adequate supply of these polyunsaturated fatty acids during this time.

Your child’s brain is more responsive to change while it is developing than it is during any other stage of life.

This means experiences in their early years (such as omega-3 intake) may have the greatest influence on their brain development (2, 7-10).

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How The Brain Develops During Early Childhood

  • Our brains develop quickly during the first five years of life, with the first two years characterised as a period of rapid brain growth
  • When we’re born, our body weight is 5% of an adult but our brain is already 25% of its adult size
  • By our first birthday, our brain has grown to approximately 70% of its adult size
  • By two-years-old, it has grown to 80% and by our sixth birthday it is approximately 90% of its adult size
  • While our early years are the fastest period of brain development, this continues through childhood and into adolescence.

If you’d like to explore the role of DHA in helping healthy brains, you can find more information here.

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Why Are Omega-3 Fatty Acids Important During Pregnancy?

DHA is an important essential fatty acid during pregnancy for a baby’s fetal development. As a result, a mother’s nutritional demands may increase during this time.

Beginning in the second half of pregnancy and continuing through the first two years of life, a growing child rapidly accumulates DHA. This coincides with a period of rapid brain development.

It’s estimated that between 67-75mg of DHA is accumulated in utero each day but this depends solely on the mother’s intake.

It’s also worth noting that a woman’s body prioritises the baby’s DHA needs, and preferentially transports DHA from the mother to her child via placental transfer.

To support both her growing bub’s needs as well as to maintain her own adequate levels, a pregnant mother will likely need to consume more DHA than a non-pregnant woman (5,11,12,13).

If you’ve like learn more about the role of DHA and other nutrients during pregnancy, you can find more information here.

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Keep In Mind: Restrictions On Fish Consumption During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, a woman’s seafood intake is restricted to just two servings each week. This varies depending on the mercury content of the fish, as specified by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

The FSANZ guidelines for fish intake during pregnancy recommends (14):

  • Consuming 2-3 servings of fish or seafood (excluding those listed below) each week
  • Limiting intake of high-mercury fish such as shark (flake), marlin, broadbill and swordfish to one serving per fortnight, with no other fish consumed during this period.
  • Limiting intake of catfish and orange roughy (deep sea perch) to one serving per week, with no other fish consumed during this period

As DHA and EPA are predominantly found in seafood, it’s likely that most pregnant women do not get adequate amounts of these omega-3 fatty acids due to these restrictions.

Would you like to learn more about which foods to avoid during pregnancy? If so, you can find helpful information here.

If you have any concerns about your nutrition during pregnancy, talk to your health professional. They will be able to take into account your individual needs and provide tailored advice accordingly.

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Which Fish Contains The Most Omega-3 Fatty Acids?

Fish is perhaps the best-known source of omega-3 fatty acids as DHA and EPA are predominately found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines and cod liver.

Although ALA may be found in plant-based foods such as canola oil, walnuts and flaxseed, the body’s ability to convert this into DHA and EPA is limited. As such, regular consumption of dietary sources of these omega-3s (such as fatty fish) is helpful for meeting our nutritional needs.

The DHA and EPA content of fish may vary depending on the water they live in and whether they are freshwater or farmed fish (15).

Fish Sources Of Omega-3:

  • 100g canned sardines: 1500mg
  • 100g canned salmon: 500-1000mg
  • 150g Atlantic salmon fillet: more than 500mg
  • 100g canned tuna: 300-500mg
  • 150g barramundi: 200-300mg
  • 150g whiting: less than 200mg

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Why May Some Children Have Inadequate Omega-3 Levels?

As we know, seafood is a prominent dietary source of omega-3s. However, it’s also common for children who are going through a fussy phase to avoid or reject fish and other seafoods.

Although you do your best to feed your little one a varied, healthy diet, picky eating may make it trickier than usual to help them reach their omega-3 requirements.

In fact, research suggests as many as 80% of Australian children don’t eat any fish or seafood as part of their diet (16), and that 40-50% don’t consume adequate amounts of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (17).

This is also echoed in the broader Australian population, with just 20% of us meeting our recommended omega-3 intake and 10% of women of childbearing age getting adequate amounts of DHA (18).

And, although our bodies can convert very limited amounts of ALA into EPA and DHA, this process is widely considered inefficient for meeting our daily needs (3,11).

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Tips For Supporting Your Child’s Omega-3 Intake

The best way to support your little one’s omega-3 levels is to feed them a healthy, balanced diet that contains food sources of ALA, EPA and DHA.

To help your child reach their recommended intake of EPA and DHA, incorporating oily fish into their meals may help to support their dietary intake.

But, how many servings of fish should they consume each week and what are some kid-friendly ways to prepare and serve it?

How Many Servings Of Fish Your Child Should Eat Per Week?

If you’re looking to support your little one’s omega-3 intake, you may be wondering just how many serving of fish they should be eating throughout the week.

Luckily, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have clear guidelines when it comes to fish consumption.

However, if you have any concerns about your child’s nutrition, it’s important to visit your health professional.

FSANZ’s guidelines for fish intake recommends 2-3 serves of fish or seafood each week, excluding shark (flake), swordfish, marlin, broadbill, orange roughy (deep sea perch) and catfish (14).

A Note On High-Mercury Fish:

  • Some fish contain more mercury than others
  • For women who are considering falling pregnant, pregnant women and children younger than six-years-old, orange roughy and catfish intake should be restricted to one serve per week (with no other fish consumption that week)
  • For these groups, shark, swordfish, broadbill and marlin should also be restricted to one serving per fortnight (with no other fish consumption that week)
  • For the rest of the population, FSANZ recommends limiting intake of shark, swordfish, broadbill and marlin to one serve per week (with no other fish consumption that week

Top Tips:

  • A serving size of fish for younger children is 75g
  • Opt for canned salmon, sardines and tuna as they contain more omega-3 than other seafood

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Kid-Friendly Tips For Serving Fish

If your little one is going through a period of fussy eating, or just isn’t a big fan of eating fish, these handy hints may help you sneak it into their meals:

  • Get them involved in preparing homemade sushi with canned tuna
  • Try hiding canned salmon or tuna into quiches and omelettes. You may also like to add some additional veggies for added nutrients.
  • Crumb homemade fish fingers and bake them in the oven with some homemade potato chips
  • Incorporate canned tuna into a homemade pasta bake

Ultimately, every child is different and has their own unique taste preferences. So, don’t be discouraged if your little one doesn’t love your first attempts at fish-based cuisine.

The beauty of tinned varieties is their versatility. Get creative and try wiggling some extra omega-3s into your child’s diet by adding fish to their favourite foods.

Remember, if you have any concerns about your child’s or your own nutrition, talk to a health professional.

These medicines may not be right for you. Read the label before purchase. Follow the directions for use.

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Did you find this information useful? If so, you may also be interested in reading about the following:

The Ultimate Guide: Which Vitamins Are Important For Children?

The Importance Of Minerals For Your Child (And How To Support Their Intake)

Helping Healthy Brains: The Importance of DHA

References

  1. Linus Pauling Institute. (2019). Essential Fatty Acids. Accessed 28 May 2020 < https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/other-nutrients/essential-fatty-acids >
  2. Kuratko, C, Barrett, E, Nelson, E & Salem, N. (2013). The Relationship of Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) with Learning and Behaviour in Healthy Children: A Review. Nutrients, 5 (7), 2777-2810.
  3. Bos, DJ, Van, SJ, Oranje, B, Durston, S & Smeets, PA. (2016). Effects of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on human brain morphology and function: What is the evidence?. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 26 (3), 546-561.
  4. Innis, S. (2008). Dietary omega 3 fatty acids and the developing brain. Brain Research, 1237, 35-43.
  5. Schuchardt, J, Huss, M, Stauss-Grabo, M, and Hahn, A. (2009). Significance of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) for the development and behaviour of children. European Journal of Pediatrics, 169(2), 149-164.
  6. Greenberg, JA, Bell, SJ, & Ausdal, WV. (2008). Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation During Pregnancy. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 1 (4), 162–169.
  7. KidsMatter Australian Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative. (2014). Early childhood neurodevelopment. Accessed 23 April 2018. https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/sites/default/files/public/KidsMatter-Early-Childhood-neurodevelopment-web.pdf
  8. Huelke, D. (1998). An Overview of Anatomical Considerations of Infants and Children in the Adult World of Automobile Safety Design. Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, 42, 93-113
  9. Tau, GZ & Peterson, BS. (2009). Normal Development of Brain Circuits. Neuropsychopharmacology, 35 (1), 147.
  10. Lenroot, RK & Giedd, JN. (2006). Brain development in children and adolescents: Insights from anatomical magnetic resonance imaging. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 30 (6), 718-729.
  11. Weiser, M, Butt, C & Mohajeri, M. (2016). Docosahexaenoic Acid and Cognition throughout the Lifespan. Nutrients, 8 (2), 99.
  12. Rogers, LK, Valentine, CJ & Keim, SA. (2013). DHA supplementation: Current implications in pregnancy and childhood. Pharmacological Research, 70 (1), 13-19.
  13. Middleton, P, Gomersall, J, Gould, J, et al. (2018). Omega‐3 fatty acid addition during pregnancy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 11. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003402.pub3.
  14. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (2011). FSANZ Advice on Fish Consumption. Accessed 1 June 2020 < https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/chemicals/mercury/documents/mif%20brochure.pdf >
  15. Victorian State Government. (2013). Better Health – Fish. Accessed 1 June 2020 < https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/fish >
  16. Meyer, B. (2011). Are we consuming enough long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for optimal health? Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids, 85, 5, 275-280.
  17. Meyer, B. J. & Kolanu, N. (2011). Australian children are not consuming enough long chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids for optimal health. Nutrition, 27 (11-12), 1136-1140.
  18. Meyer, B. (2016). Australians are not Meeting the Recommended Intakes for Omega-3 Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids: Results of an Analysis from the 2011–2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey. Nutrients, 8 (3). DOI: 10.3390/nu8030111

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