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olistic Healthcare for Children

Attention Problems in Children

© Randall Neustaedter OMD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Holistic Healthcare for Children by Randall Neustaedter OMD. View all columns in series

Several studies have demonstrated that children with lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream have significantly more behavioral problems, temper tantrums, and learning, health, and sleep problems than do those children with high proportions of those fatty acids (Mitchell et al., 1987; Stevens et al., 1996). In a similar study, fifty-three children with ADHD had significantly lower proportions of key fatty acids (AA, EPA, and DHA) in their blood than did forty-three control subjects. Children with lower omega-3 levels had lower behavioral assessment scores (Conners’ Parent Rating Scale) and teacher scores of academic abilities (Stevens et al., 1995). The researchers speculated that an inefficient conversion of polyunsaturated fatty acids to AA and DHA may have been a significant factor in the lower levels of those fats in ADHD children.

In one study, researchers showed that children with ADHD were breastfed less often as infants than were the control children. They assume that the high levels of DHA in breast milk could be responsible for better performance later in life since infants are inefficient at converting polyunsaturated fats from other sources into the valuable omega-3 fat DHA that is essential for brain development. Even the duration of breastfeeding has been associated with higher intelligence and higher academic achievement in later childhood, and with higher levels of high school attainment (Horwood and Fergusson, 1998). A study published in 2002 also showed a significant association between intelligence levels in adults and the duration of their breastfeeding as infants (Mortensen et al., 2002).

The take-home message from these reports is to breastfeed your children and maintain adequate levels of DHA throughout childhood to encourage the best potential for successful academic performance and to reduce the possibility of learning and behavior problems.

Accardo, J P, et al. Disorders of attention and activity levels in a referral population. Pediatrics 1990; 85 (Suppl., Part 2):426–431.

Armstrong, Thomas. The Myth of the A.D.D. Child: 50 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion. New York: Plume, 1997.

Horwood, L J, and Fergusson, D M. Breastfeeding and later cognitive and academic outcomes. Pediatrics 1998; 101:1–7.

Martin, R P, and Holbrook, J. Relationship of temperament characteristics to the academic achievement of first-grade children. Journal Psychoeducational Assessment 1985; 3:377–386.

Mitchell, E A, et al. Clinical characteristics and serum essential fatty acid levels in hyperactive children. Clinical Pediatrics 1987; 26:406–411.

Mortensen, E L, et al. The association between duration of breastfeeding and adult intelligence. Journal American Medical Association 2002; 287:2365–2371.

Stevens, L J, et al. Essential fatty acid metabolism in boys with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal Clinical Nutrition 1995;62:761–768.

Stevens, L J, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids in boys with behavior, learning, and health problems. Physiol Behavior 1996 Apr-May; 59(4–5):915–20.

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About The Author
Dr. Randal Neustaedter has practiced holistic medicine for more than thirty years in the San Francisco Bay Area, specializing in child health care. He is a licensed acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, as well as education director of the Holistic Pediatric Association, author of Child Health Guide and ...more
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