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DHA for Children

What You Need to Know About DHA For Children

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Updated June 10, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an omega-3 fatty acid sometimes used to improve health in children. Found naturally in oily fish and in seaweed, DHA is also available in supplement form.

Uses for DHA in Children

Since DHA is essential for neurological and visual development, DHA supplements are thought to enhance brain function and vision in children. In addition, DHA supplements are purported to treat certain health problems in children, such as allergies, asthma, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Benefits of DHA for Children

Here's a look at some key study findings on the benefits of DHA for children:

1) ADHD in Children

DHA deficiency may be common among children with ADHD, according to a report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2000. However, it's not known whether DHA supplements can help treat ADHD in children.

For instance, in a 2001 study from the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers found that four months of DHA supplementation failed to decrease symptoms in a group of children with ADHD. The study involved 63 six- to 12-year-old children, each of whom received 345 mg of DHA or a placebo daily. Given this finding -- and an overall lack of evidence for the effectiveness of DHA in treating ADHD in children -- it's too soon to recommend DHA supplements as a treatment for ADHD in children.

2) Brain Health in Children

So far, research on DHA's effects on cognitive function in children has yielded mixed results. For example, a 2009 study of 90 healthy children ages 10 to 12 (published in Nutritional Neuroscience) found that eight weeks of DHA supplementation did not have beneficial effect on brain function.

On the other hand, a 2008 study of 175 healthy four-year-old children (published in Clinical Pediatrics) found that higher blood levels of DHA were linked to higher scores on vocabulary tests. However, this study did not specifically test the use of DHA supplements (and its potential to improve test scores). Therefore, DHA's effectiveness in improving cognitive function in children remains unclear.

Side Effects of DHA

Taking DHA in the form of fish oil may cause certain side effects, such as bad breath, heartburn, and nausea. Before treating your child with DHA supplements, consult his or her pediatrician to determine a safe dosage.

Where to Find DHA Supplements for Children

Widely available for purchase online, DHA supplements for children are sold in many natural-food stores, grocery stores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements. DHA supplements are often available in flavored "gummy" form to make the supplements palatable for children.

Should You Give Your Children DHA Supplements?

It's possible to achieve ample DHA intake by eating oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, and sardines) several times a week. If these types of fish aren't a regular part of your child's diet, talk to your pediatrician about whether you should consider giving them DHA supplements. Your pediatrician can also help you to determine a safe and effective dosage for DHA supplements.

It's important to note that treating a chronic condition with DHA and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences for your children's health. What's more, some research suggests that using DHA supplements to treat certain chronic conditions may be of little or no benefit to children.

Sources:

Amminger GP, Berger GE, Schäfer MR, Klier C, Friedrich MH, Feucht M. "Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in children with autism: a double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled pilot study." Biol Psychiatry. 2007 Feb 15;61(4):551-3.

Burgess JR, Stevens L, Zhang W, Peck L. "Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder." Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Jan;71(1 Suppl):327S-30S.

Kennedy DO, Jackson PA, Elliott JM, Scholey AB, Robertson BC, Greer J, Tiplady B, Buchanan T, Haskell CF. "Cognitive and mood effects of 8 weeks' supplementation with 400 mg or 1000 mg of the omega-3 essential fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) in healthy children aged 10-12 years." Nutr Neurosci. 2009 Apr;12(2):48-56.

Nagakura T, Matsuda S, Shichijyo K, Sugimoto H, Hata K. "Dietary supplementation with fish oil rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in children with bronchial asthma." Eur Respir J. 2000 Nov;16(5):861-5.

Ryan AS, Nelson EB. "Assessing the effect of docosahexaenoic acid on cognitive functions in healthy, preschool children: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind study." Clin Pediatr (Phila). 2008 May;47(4):355-62.

Voigt RG, Llorente AM, Jensen CL, Fraley JK, Berretta MC, Heird WC. "A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of docosahexaenoic acid supplementation in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder." J Pediatr. 2001 Aug;139(2):189-96.

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