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.