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Keywords:

  • actigraphy;
  • children;
  • docosahexaenoic acid;
  • omega-3;
  • randomized controlled trial;
  • sleep

Summary

Sleep problems in children are associated with poor health, behavioural and cognitive problems, as are deficiencies of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids such as docosahexaenoic acid. Theory and some evidence support a role for these fatty acids in sleep regulation, but this issue has received little formal investigation. We examined associations between blood fatty acid concentrations (from fingerstick blood samples) and subjective sleep (using an age-standardized parent questionnaire) in a large epidemiological sample of healthy children aged 7–9 years (= 395) from mainstream UK schools. In a randomized controlled trial, we then explored whether 16-week supplementation (600 mg day−1) with algal docosahexaenoic acid versus placebo might improve sleep in a subset of those children (= 362) who were underperforming in reading. In a randomly selected subsample (= 43), sleep was also assessed objectively via actigraphy. In 40% of the epidemiological sample, Child Sleep Habits Questionnaire scores indicated clinical-level sleep problems. Furthermore, poorer total sleep disturbance scores were associated weakly but significantly with lower blood docosahexaenoic acid (std coeff. −0.105*) and a lower docosahexaenoic acid : arachidonic acid ratio (std coeff. −0.119**). The treatment trial showed no significant effects on subjective sleep measures. However, in the small actigraphy subsample, docosahexaenoic acid supplementation led on average to seven fewer wake episodes and 58 min more sleep per night. Cautiously, we conclude that higher blood levels of docosahexaenoic acid may relate to better child sleep, as rated by parents. Exploratory pilot objective evidence from actigraphy suggests that docosahexaenoic acid supplementation may improve children's sleep, but further investigations are needed.