Window of Opportunity for Youth Development: DHA & Motor Delay

It is well known that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and other n – 3 fatty acids are crucial for healthy neural tube development in pregnancy. However, little research exists investigating the effect of DHA supplementation in post-natal settings, particularly with pre-school-aged children (children 6 years and younger). Rosales, Reznic, and Zeisel (2009) have shown this age bracket to be a crucial “window” for motor development, yet little has been established for supplementation as a target intervention for the improvement of motor delays in institutionalized (foster care setting) children within this age group.

Furthermore, Hanson, Jawad, Ryan and Silver (2011) found that children between 24 and 72 months, living in foster care, kinship care, orphanages, or child welfare systems (hence forth collectively referred to as “institutionalized systems”) had greater motor delay according to the PDMS-2 test for motor development, compared to children who have never been placed in child welfare systems. Hanson, Jawad, Ruan and Silver (2011) note that the PDMS-2 test has shown to be especially useful when examining motor ability in younger children. No study was found to address nutritional programs as target intervention strategies for motor development within this age group, neither independently nor concomitantly with “free play” intervention programs. This literature review seeks to determine the effect of a 12- week DHA supplementation regimen as a target intervention strategy for children aged 2 to 5 years, with motor delay, and enrolled in institutionalized systems.

There are currently no recommended dosages for DHA supplementation in children; however, Kennedy and colleagues (2009) examined the effect of 400 mg and 1000 mg DHA supplementation in “cognitively intact” children aged 10 to 12 years. There was no statistically significant difference in cognitive performance outcome at either dosage.  Jim Stevenson (2007) notes that malnutrition can have serious adverse effects on motor development, stating that, “Although stunting is associated with cognitive and educational deficits later in childhood, there is increasing evidence that early intervention can reverse some of this effect” (p. 361). Many of the children in institutionalized systems were neglected, abused, and malnourished prior to Child Protective Service intervention.

Stevenson’s review of dietary influences on childhood development outlines several factors relevant to children in institutionalized settings:

  1. malnutrition,
  2. pharmacological effects of foods,
  3. eating habits, and
  4. foods and hyperactivity.

These facets of nutrition have not yet been examined or implicated as a target for intervention programs. Most importantly to note, Stevenson’s review found that some of these facets of diet weighed more heavily than others on childhood development, but improvements were most significant overall in children with motor delay. He notes specifically, “The impact of n-3 fatty acid supplementation has to date only been convincingly demonstrated with children with types of specific learning disability” (p. 364).

Coinciding with Stevenson’s findings, Rosales, Reznic, and Zeisel (2009) investigated the effect of nutrition on brain and behavioral development in toddlers and pre-school-aged children.  As stated above, the authors note that this age is a critical window for brain plasticity and is modulated by environmental factors, nutrition being the one factor that directly modulates gene expression. Like Stevenson, Rosales, Reznic, and Zeisel’s findings suggest that nutrition – due to its implicit role in epigenetic modifications – is an essential component for healthy and normal brain development at this age.

These findings suggest that nutrition should be a key component in intervention programs particularly with young children who are developing the foundations for lifelong physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral health (Rosales, Reznic, & Zeisel, 2009).


Hanson, H., Jawad, A. F., Ryan, T., & Silver, J. (2011). Factors influencing gross motor development in young children in an urban child welfare system. Pediatric Physical Therapy, 23(4), 335-46.
Kennedy, D. O., Jackson, P. A., Elliott, J. M., Scholey, A. B., Robertson, B. C., Greer, J., Tiplady, B., et al. (2009). 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. Nutritional Neuroscience, 12(2), 48-56.
Rosales, F. J., Reznic, J. S., & Zeisel, S. H. (2009). Understanding the role of nutrition in the brain & behavioral development of toddlers and preschool children: Identifying and overcoming methodological barriers. Nutritional Neuroscience, 12(5), 190-202.
Stevenson, J. (2007). Dietary influences on cognitive development and behavior in children. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 65(4), 361-365.

Kate, MS, CSCS

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