Kids Health Info

Fish oils - what the research says

  • Omega-3 and fish oil

    Omega-3 fatty acids are important for our eyes to work well and for parts of the brain used for memory, learning and reasoning. If we do not eat enough omega-3, these functions may be impaired. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid found in fish and seafood. Many people who don't eat much seafood choose to take fish oil supplements because they contain large amounts of omega-3. Research shows mixed results about the benefits of fish oils in children. This factsheet explains what we do know.

    Can fish oil help your child?  A research update

    What we do know

    • Children with ADHD are more likely to show symptoms of low omega-3 levels (e.g. dry skin, dry hair, excessive thirst) and have lower levels of omega-3 in their blood than children without ADHD.
    • There is some evidence that increasing omega-3 levels reduces the severity of ADHD-type behaviour, such as inattention, in some children. However, not all fish oil studies have shown improvements in ADHD-type behaviour. There are not enough good quality studies for us to be sure of its benefit.
    • Some children with reading difficulties have shown major improvement in their reading after taking fish oil, but again, we know of other studies that show no improvement.
    • Fish oil supplements vary a lot in their content and some appear to provide more benefit than others.

    What we don't know

    • The effects of fish oil for children with no learning or behaviour problems. One study showed that healthy young adults who took fish oil showed improvements in attention. We do not yet know if this also happens in children. 
    • How many children show improvements in behaviour and learning after taking fish oil, or what influences this.

    As you can see from the above information, there are mixed research findings about fish oil. There seem to be benefits for some children, but more research is needed to confirm this.

    Are there any side-effects from taking fish oil?

    Fish oil is generally considered safe. 

    • Some people complain of a fishy aftertaste and stomach upset after taking high doses of fish oil.
    • Other possible side-effects include nausea, diarrhoea, belching (burping) or a rash.
    • Some people are also at risk of problems with bleeding if they take very high doses of fish oil. 

    Should my child take fish oil?

    Your child should NOT take fish oils if they:

    • have a known hypersensitivity to fish oils
    • have a bleeding disorder
    • are taking anti-coagulant or antiplatelet medicine.

    Otherwise, taking fish oil is considered safe and may have some benefits. Every child is different - you may or may not see an improvement in your child's behaviour or learning. 

    If your child has ADHD and is taking medication, they can also take fish oil. Speak to your child's doctor about this before you start. Fish oil should not be used instead of your child's usual medication without discussing with a doctor first.

    For more information


    Produced by the RCH Centre for Community Child Health and Murdoch Children's Research Institute. First published Aug 2006. Updated September 2012.

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