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Can Fatty Acid Supplements Improve Your Child’s Behavior?

Nov 12, 2020

Babies need certain amounts of nutrients and fats during fetal development. When children are born prematurely, they may miss out on these important nutrients, which can affect their brain development. As a result, preemies can sometimes struggle in school or with behavior problems. Physicians or parents may try to make up for that lost time using nutritional supplements.

One of those key nutrients, Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is an omega-3 fatty acid that serves as an important building block for different structures in babies’ developing brains. During fetal development and in the first two years of infants’ lives, the brain absorbs DHA, which is also found in breast milk, in high quantities as the brain rapidly learns and grows. Research has shown that preterm infants, who may not get enough DHA naturally, can benefit from receiving supplements of this crucial nutrient soon after birth. For this reason, in recent years, it has also been included in infant formula.

Physicians didn’t know, however, whether babies could continue to benefit from receiving supplementary DHA as they grew older and began moving to table food and cow’s milk. During this time, children may enter a period of DHA deficiency. Could supplements help?

Studying DHA Supplements in 2018

In a 2018 study called, “Omega Tots” researchers studied 377 toddlers who had been treated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Nationwide Children's Hospital to consume either a daily DHA supplement or a placebo, corn oil. The babies were born at less than 35 weeks’ gestation and at the time of the study were one year old.

Neither the children, parents, nor researchers knew who was in which group. The supplements were packaged identically and given to the children’s caregivers. To see if there were any differences in development between the groups, toddlers were then given a test of skills and abilities. Parents were also asked to report on their child’s activity level and ability to focus and be patient during daily activities.

The results showed that DHA didn’t seem to improve development compared to the placebo.

Based on this study, it didn’t seem warranted to offer DHA supplements to toddlers who were born preterm, but it was possible that supplementation had other benefits that this study didn’t examine.

New Findings in 2020

Those possibilities are what a new study, published in September 2020, set out to find. This study focused on social skills and emotion regulation, including behaviors typically associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), rather than broad cognitive development. It examined whether any benefits or effects might become greater as children grow and develop.

The supplement did seem to have a positive impact on some of these aspects of development and behavior. Children who were given DHA supplements were less likely to meet the threshold on a test caregivers completed to determine if they should be further evaluated for ASD.

Future Research

In light of the mixed results of the two studies, it’s especially important to continue researching.

First, we will continue to study the original 377 children, now in school, to explore whether there are any long-term impacts of receiving the DHA supplements. It will be important for as many of those children as possible to take part in this new phase of the research in order to get important answers.

In another study, we plan to test a different fatty acid supplement for its effect on children who have already been diagnosed with autism.

We will also look at the children’s genetics. Certain genes regulate how the body uses important nutrients like DHA and makes them available to the brain. Exploring the role of each gene may be able to help researchers recommend which fatty acid supplements, and in what form and dosage, are appropriate for each child and their unique gene footprint.

Nationwide Children’s research helps families and pediatricians everywhere make the best decisions to ensure optimal outcomes for each and every child. Many products containing fatty acids like DHA are available over the counter and many natural food sources of protein also contain DHA. The results of these studies allow for thoughtful, evidence-based decision-making about when or whether adjusting a child’s diet or giving them supplements would be appropriate and beneficial. 
Clinical Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital
To learn more about how you and your child can get involved with research opportunities, click here.

Featured Expert

Sarah Keim
Sarah Keim, PhD
Center for Biobehavioral Health

Sarah A. Keim, MA, MS, PhD is a principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She is an assistant professor of pediatrics in The Ohio State University College of Medicine and of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health.

Kelly Boone
Biobehavioral Health

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.