Now research says fatty acids may improve children's sleep

Harold Mandel's picture
A child sleeping well

Children need a great deal of sleep to maintain good overall health. When there appears to be sleep problems for kids it's a good idea to try natural remedies to help induce sleep in order to avoid the potentially very serious side effects associated with using any type of sleeping medications for children. Keeping kids active during the day and good nutrition should help.

There is an association between sleep problems in children with such serious problems as:

1: Poor health

2: Behavioural problems

3: Cognitive problems

Deficiencies of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid are also associated with these problems, reported the Journal of Sleep Research. There have been some theories and some evidence to support the role of these fatty acids in the proper regulation of sleep. However, this issue has not received a great deal of formal investigation.

Researchers investigated associations which exist between blood fatty acid concentrations, via fingerstick blood samples, and subjective sleep, via the use of an age-standardized parent questionnaire. The children in the study were from a large epidemiological sample of healthy kids aged 7–9 years old from mainstream schools in the United Kingdom. The researchers then explored
whether 16-week supplementation with algal docosahexaenoic acid versus a placebo might improve sleep in a subset of those kids who were not performing well in reading.

In the study 40 percent of the epidemiological sample had scores on the Child Sleep Habits Questionnaire which indicated clinical-level sleep problems. It was noted that poorer total sleep disturbance scores were associated weakly , but in a significant manner, with lower blood docosahexaenoic acid and a lower docosahexaenoic acid. In a treatment trial docosahexaenoic acid supplementation led on average to seven less wake episodes and 58 minutes more sleep per night. The researchers have cautiously concluded that higher blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid may be associated with improved child sleep, as rated by their parents.


This randomized placebo-controlled study suggests that higher levels of omega-3 DHA, which is the group of long-chain fatty acids which are found in algae and seafood, are associated with improved sleep, reported the University of Oxford in a discussion of this research. Specifically, the University of Oxford researchers investigated whether 16 weeks of daily 600mg supplements of algal sources of these fatty acids would improve the sleep of 362 children. All of the kids selected for the study were not selected for sleep problems, but they were all having problems with reading at a mainstream primary school.

Parents sleep questionnaires revealed that four in 10 of the kids in the study suffered from regular sleep disturbances. Of the kids who were rated as having poor sleep, the researchers fitted wrist sensors to 43 of them in order to monitor their movements in bed over five nights. It was observed that the kids on a course of daily supplements of omega-3 had nearly one hour more sleep and seven fewer waking episodes per night in comparison with the kids taking the corn or soybean placebo.

There have been suggestions of associations between poor sleep and low blood omega-3 LC-PUFA in infants and in kids and adults with behavior or learning difficulties in previous research. However, this was the first study to explore possible associations between sleep and fatty acid status in healthy kids. In the study 40 percent of the kids had clinical-level sleep problems such as:

1: Resistance to bedtime

2: Anxiety about sleep

3: Constant waking in the course of the night

It was observed that higher blood levels of the long-chain omega-3 DHA, which is the main omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain, are significantly associated with improved sleep. It was also observed that higher ratios of DHA in relation to the long-chain omega-6 fatty acid AA, or arachidonic acid, are also associated with less sleep problems. Professor Paul Montgomery of Oxford University, lead author of the study, said: "To find clinical level sleep problems in four in 10 of this general population sample is a cause for concern. Various substances made within the body from omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids have long been known to play key roles in the regulation of sleep."

Montgomery pointed out that lower ratios of DHA have been associated with lower levels of melatonin. This finding would fit with the finding that sleep problems are greater in kids with lower levels of DHA in their blood. Co-investigator Dr Alex Richardson of Oxford University has said: "Previous studies we have published showed that blood levels of omega-3 DHA in this general population sample of seven to nine-year-olds were alarmingly low overall, and this could be directly related to the children's behavior and learning." It is Richardson's opinion that poor sleep could well assist in explaining some of those associations.

It has been my observation that the desire for a quick fix for sleep problems in kids often leads parents to seek drug treatment for this problem. Sleep medications and tranquilizers can be particularly harmful for the developing minds of young children. I therefore suggest more emphasis should be placed on advising parents that natural interventions such as more daily exercise and good nutrition, along with avoidance of too much sugar, chocolate and and foods containing caffeine, should help. This research dealing with the potential benefits of fatty acids to help kids sleep well is also worth noting.