Fish can be one of those topics that confuses parents and there’s often conflicting information online, especially in different parts of the world. In this blog, I’m sharing the latest fish recommendations for babies and toddlers, based on UK guidance. I’ve also included some ideas for alternatives if your little one doesn’t eat fish!
When should I offer my baby fish?
When it comes to babies, many people are seemingly nervous about offering fish during the introduction of solid foods. However, fish provides an important source of nutrients including proteins, iron and omega-3 fatty acids.
Guidelines in the UK recommend that fish can be offered as a food to baby from 6 months of age. In fact the NHS suggests that once baby is comfortable with their first solid foods, mashed fish (without any bones) is a good food option to offer. Not only is it a nutrient-rich food, it has a great texture for little ones – either mashed or as a soft finger food, and it’s a great way to build on savoury flavours early on in the weaning journey.
Fish is an allergen, and therefore it should be offered in line with guidance around offering allergens – e.g offer in small amounts at first and ensure fish is the ONLY new food offered that day the first time it’s given. Check my blog on introducing allergens during weaning for more.
It is possible to be allergic to one type of fish only, or to many types of fish. Fish and shellfish account for 3 of the 14 major allergens – fish, shellfish and molluscs. If your little one shows any signs of allergy when introducing fish, you may wish to speak to a healthcare professional for guidance on introducing different types of fish and shellfish. Allergy UK has more information on fish and shellfish allergy.
Additionally, there are certain restrictions on how much fish should be offered to babies and young children, mainly when it comes to oily and larger fish.
What are the different types of fish?
Different types of fish provide different nutrients and there are varying recommendations depending on the type of fish.
This includes cod, haddock, pollock, tilapia, sea bass and sea bream. White fish is a good source of protein, iodine and iron. Additionally, white fish can be a good alternative to red meat, if people are reducing this in their families diets..
Some white fish do provide a level of omega-3, but it’s not in as high in white fish as in oily fish.
Oily fish includes fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and herring which are particularly high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and are also a good source of vitamin D). Fish in general tends to be a good source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, calcium and selenium. These nutrients, including omega-3, are important for heart health and also for supporting the healthy development of baby during pregnancy and beyond . During pregnancy omega-3 fatty acids are additionally important for the development of a baby’s central nervous system.
Whilst some tuna was previously considered as an oily fish, since 2018, it has been downgraded, as the omega-3 content is no longer considered high enough to be classified as an oily fish.
This includes prawns, crab, mussels, scallops, squid and langoustine. Shellfish provide a source of iodine, zinc and selenium and are also low in saturated fat. Certain types of shellfish, including such as mussels, squid and crab, do contain omega-3, although not as much as oily fish.
How much fish is recommended for a baby?
There is no specific recommendation regarding how regularly we should offer fish to babies and toddlers. However, for most of the population the fish recommendations suggest that we should be eating two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily. Around 140g counts as a portion of oily fish for adults and those over 12 years of age.
When offering fish to your baby, it’s a good idea to stick with the same recommendations – 2 portions of fish a week and one of which is oily, but be mindful about offering much smaller portion sizes to younger children.
The British Dietetic Association offers these recommendations when it comes to portion sizes for different age groups:
Other UK based organisations have similar recommendations. For a 1-4 year old, the following are appropriate portion sizes for a variety of different fish options:
- ¼ – 1 small fillet of oily or white fish or around 40g
- ½-1 tablespoon of tinned fish or around 40g
Remember that portion sizes will vary depending on ages and younger children/babies will need smaller portion sizes than older babies/children.
Download my free factsheet for more on portion sizes for toddlers. It’s important to remember that there are recommendations on the amounts of different types of fish that should be consumed by different population groups (see below), so do bear these in mind when considering the portions you offer to your little ones.
What about the restrictions when it comes to fish?
There are some specific restrictions when it comes to offering different types of fish to different groups of the population, especially young children and pregnant women.
I have summarised these in the table below which breaks down the type of fish and age group so you can easily see if you need to be restricting the amount of fish that you’re eating or offering to young children.
On top of these fish recommendations, pregnant women are recommended to have no more than two 140g portions of fresh tuna or four 140g tins of tuna a week.
Why is fish restricted?
It’s so important to remember that fish, especially oily fish, offers benefits such as omega-3 fatty acids, which are hard to get from other foods in the diet. Including fish as part of a well-balanced diet, is a great way to include lots of key nutrients for growing children.
However, there are restrictions on how much we should be eating when it comes to fish as fish can pick up pollutants such as mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) from the sea. Pollutants can be stored in the fish’s flesh and then passed on to us in very small amounts when we eat them.
Oily fish – this can contain very low levels of PCBs which can build up in the body and may affect development of a baby or even a future baby in the womb. This is why the recommendations on oily fish differ for boys and girls.
Shark/Swordfish/Marlin – large fish that eat other fish and therefore may have a build-up of mercury in their flesh which can be passed on to humans if consumed. Mercury may also affect the development of a baby’s nervous system. Shark and marlin are also endangered and risk extinction so we should avoid these types for this reason too.
Raw shellfish – shellfish is OK to offer to babies and young children in small amounts, but raw shellfish isn’t recommended to children due to the risk of food poisoning.
White fish – this type of fish is not restricted but there are a few white fish options that should not be eaten too often. These include sea bream, sea bass, turbot, halibut and rock salmon. These are, again, restricted as they are likely to have larger levels of pollutants than other white fish, due to their higher oil content relative to other varieties of white fish.
Can my baby or toddler have canned tuna?
Canned tuna is a really popular food for families – it’s cheap to buy, it has a long shelf life and it’s quick and easy to prepare. However, there is conflicting advice on the safety of tuna and the levels of mercury it contains.
Tuna does contain higher levels of mercury than other fish, but due to the different size and species used, canned tuna appears to have lower levels of mercury than fresh tuna. Whilst there are recommendations for women who are trying for a baby or are pregnant to restrict tuna (see above), there are no specific recommendations on how much tuna babies should have.
If you are worried about offering tuna to your baby, you can opt for other varieties of canned fish, such as salmon, sardines or mackerel. These can be used in similar ways to tuna, and have lower levels of mercury. Tilapia, pollock and haddock are good examples of white fish that contain lower levels of mercury. Remember that tuna doesn’t count as an oily fish, so if you do offer it to your baby, make sure to include oily fish options in their diet as well!
As always, VARIETY really is the key. If you’re offering a variety of different types of fish as well as other protein sources (including meat and/or plant-based proteins) to your baby or toddler, and sticking within the recommended limits in the table above, it’s unlikely that you need to worry too much about mercury levels.
Why are there differences in restrictions in fish across the world?
Restrictions and recommendations differ across the world and it’s important to note that the current guidelines we refer to here are based on data for fish sold in the UK. Guidelines are always subject to change and it’s something I’m watching closely if any new information and data becomes available.
Data on the levels of pollutants in fish is limited, and the levels vary depending on where the fish is caught. Research from EFSA in 2012 found that average levels of mercury in fish did not exceed the recommended maximum intake. In a report for the Food Standards Agency in 2015, certain samples of fish were found to have levels of pollutants higher than the regulated amounts. However, it’s important to note that current guidelines in the UK consider the balance of the data we have on levels of pollutants in fish, along with the beneficial nutrients that fish provide.
What if I don’t like fish or don’t want to offer it to my baby?
As plant-based diets become increasingly popular, many little ones don’t have a lot, or any fish in their diet. And whilst there are many health benefits to including fish, a child’s diet can be perfectly well-balanced, without including fish. If not offering fish, it’s important to include other sources of omega-3, such as:
- Ground or chopped walnuts
- Rapeseed oil
- Milled linseed or flaxseed, chia seed and hemp seeds
- Soya and soya products
- Green leafy vegetables
However, it is hard to get enough of the right kind of omega-3 from these foods alone so you might want to consider an omega-3 vegan supplement (such as algal oil) that is appropriate for your baby/toddler. Chat to your health visitor, GP or pharmacist about which options are suitable.
Take home points:
- Fish is an important source of nutrients and a good way to offer essential fatty acids, protein and iron to a baby
- There are, however, recommendations and restrictions around certain types of fish
- A portion for babies and young children is roughly 40g
- Two portions of fish per week is recommended – one oily and one other
- If avoiding fish, include other sources of omega-3 such as ground nuts, tofu and eggs alongside a varied and balanced diet
Try some of my fish recipes for babies and toddlers