As a pediatrician and father of eight, I've realized how much children's health and behavior is affected, for better or worse, by what they eat. Of course, you already know how important a balanced diet full of whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins is, but when it comes to babies and toddlers, one thing I always found missing from their diet was fish. Parents didn't seem to think it was a "baby" food.
But over the years, I'd been reading more and more about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, essential nutrients found in seafood. Study after study was proving their contribution to infant brain development and more. I began "prescribing" omega-3's to my patients in 2000 by encouraging their parents to offer them more fish. Since then, I've only grown more convinced that omega-3's are the head-to-toe nutrient because they're good for nearly every organ of a child's body, from the brain to the skin. Most parents, however, are unsure about feeding their babies fish, which is the richest source of DHA, the healthiest type of omega-3 fatty acid for infants. Here's why -- and how -- to "go fish," for both your baby and you!
What eating fish can do for you and your baby:
Make your baby smarter. In the '80s and early '90s, initial research suggested that infants who received DHA-enriched formula experienced improved cognitive development, leading the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in 2001, to allow infant formula to be supplemented with the brain-building omega-3, DHA. Since then, the proof keeps piling up. A 2003 study in the journal Pediatrics found that mothers who took omega-3 supplements during pregnancy and lactation increased their children's cognitive abilities at 4 years of age. In 2005, another study revealed that schoolchildren who were given omega-3 supplements showed improved reading and spelling scores. Since a child's brain grows fastest prenatally and continues to grow rapidly in the first year of life, tripling in size by the end of the first year, this is an ideal time to get DHA into his diet.
Increase focus. Another study found that toddlers whose mothers had higher DHA blood levels at delivery were better able to maintain focus on an object compared with tots whose mothers had lower DHA levels.
Improve vision. DHA has been shown to help sharpen vision in infants.
Boost mood. Research has shown that adults who consume more omega-3's have a lower rate of mood disorders and that women who eat fish high in these fatty acids during pregnancy suffer less postpartum depression. Why? Omega-3's may act in the brain to raise levels of "happy" hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters in the brain that are also targeted by some prescription antidepressants. I'll eat to that!
Enhance immunity. These fantastic fatty acids have also been linked to improved immunity. In one study, Danish toddlers who consumed formula supplemented with fish oil had much higher levels of a protein that's key to healthy immune function than those who drank plain formula or cow's milk.
Prevent eczema. Omega-3's can decrease inflammation in all parts of the body, including the skin. Serving a little salmon or chunk-light tuna to your baby before 9 months may actually help to protect him from developing the allergic skin condition, according to a Swedish study.
Answers to the most common questions parents ask me:
When can I start feeding my baby fish? Except for shellfish, you can serve your baby puréed or mashed fish as early as 6 months when he starts eating solids. Fish may seem like a "grown-up" food, but it is the ideal fare for infants. Read on for serving ideas.
What types of fish are best? Oily fish such as chunk-light tuna, sardines, halibut, and salmon are the best sources of healthy omega-3's. But sardines aren't practical for feeding to a baby, and halibut and tuna are higher in mercury. That makes salmon the best source of DHA (again, the star omega-3 fatty acid) and, in my opinion, the healthiest fish for kids and adults alike. But almost all seafood contains omega-3's, so try giving your baby a variety of low-mercury fish. Pollock is used in most commercial fish sticks and is another good choice.
What seafood should we avoid? Some fish are high in mercury and other pollutants. Check out the "Mercury Meter," a guide to mercury levels in commonly consumed fish, from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Try to stick to the fish in the "low mercury" category, though infants can eat up to three ounces per week of the fish listed as "moderate mercury" (adults can eat up to six ounces). Avoid those fish in the "high" category altogether. Finally, shellfish can be allergenic; your doctor may recommend holding off until age 2.
Are omega-3's the only nutritional benefit of fish? Omega-3's are the standout nutrient, but fish is also a wonderful source of lean protein. It's high in vitamin D, too, an important vitamin for strong bones that many children are lacking, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
How much DHA does my baby need? I recommend that infants get around 300 milligrams of DHA per day, more than half of which they can get from their regular daily feedings of breast milk or formula fortified with DHA. On top of that, try to give your solids-eating tot a total of about two ounces of wild salmon per week. Once your baby is off formula and/or breast milk, try to up her amount of wild salmon to six or seven ounces per week. If you find it difficult to reach that amount, consider a supplement to make up the difference. Ask your doctor for a recommendation, or try my own DHA liquid called Go Fish (find retailers at Drsearshealthykids.com).
I'm pregnant/breastfeeding. Should I eat more fish? You want to be careful that you're not consuming too much mercury but also getting a healthy amount of DHA. Stick to the recommendations already given in terms of how much fish you eat and, in addition, make sure your prenatal vitamin contains DHA (most do). Try to get at least 300 milligrams per day. For reference, the amount of DHA and other omega-3's in six ounces of wild Alaskan salmon is around 2,000 milligrams.
Doubtful your baby will eat fish? Start with salmon, and try these tips:
Don't stress it. Pop open a can of boneless wild salmon, and dole out bites to your baby (no need to cook it!). Blend the salmon flakes into mac 'n' cheese or mashed potatoes. Another option: HappyBaby sells a frozen puree of wild salmon, lentils, and sweet potatoes (find retailers at Happybabyfood.com).
Spread it out. Puree cooked salmon (canned or fresh) with lemon, olive oil, and seasonings, then spread it on bread or crackers.
Strip it down. My daughter, Hayden, makes delicious breaded salmon strips that her son loves. Just as you would with chicken fingers, dip inch-wide strips of salmon fillet into beaten eggs and coat them with a mixture of whole-wheat flour, whole-wheat bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, and a dash of salt. Then bake the strips for about eight minutes. However you prepare it, offer fish to your baby from the start, and it will be a favorite food.