When it comes to pregnancy and babies the amount of advice about nutrition is staggering. There are so many books, leaflets, TV programmes and websites that it’s easy to become confused about what’s best for you and your children to eat. At least when it comes to fish there is no confusion - fish is a rich source of many of the vital nutrients you and your baby need for good health and is something any mother can safely keep on the menu.
Studies on the foods mothers eat while pregnant have shown a huge benefit in including fish at least twice a week as part of a healthy diet. Fish is a fantastic source of protein, essential for healthy growth. Babies grow at a ferocious rate in the womb and continue this rapid rate of growth right through their first year. Your newborn baby will double in length and triple in weight in the first twelve months after birth alone! Protein is needed to help the baby develop healthy muscles and bones as well as developing internal organs and the immune system. For the expectant mum, protein is just as important. Apart from helping your baby to grow, you will need extra blood to help your body with your pregnancy and protein is essential for this. All types of fish have protein – white fish like cod, whiting and haddock as well as oil-rich fish like salmon and trout.
But fish is more than just protein. Fish are also rich in minerals like iodine, selenium and zinc and are an excellent source of B12 while oil-rich fish are rich in vitamins A and D, not to mention omega 3 fats. Iodine is needed for healthy metabolism and selenium and zinc are important for a healthy immune system. Fish is also rich in B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 which is needed to help develop healthy blood for both you and your baby. Oil-rich fish like salmon, trout, and mackerel, have the added benefit of vitamins A and D. Vitamin A is needed for healthy skin and eyes and vitamin D has a special role to play in helping you to absorb the extra calcium your baby needs for his bones. In young children (and older!) vitamin D continues to be important for healthy bones.
Vitamin D – A special case
Fish is one of the richest sources of vitamin D in the Irish diet – and vitamin D is hard to come by in other foods. Usually we make our own vitamin D when sun shines on our skin but in Ireland we only get sunlight strong enough to do this from March to September. This means that many pregnant women and newborn babies may be low in vitamin D. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently issued a report recommending that newborn babies should be supplemented with vitamin D as they were concerned about the low levels of this vitamin in Irish babies. Vitamin D is found naturally in eggs and oil-rich fish and in some fortified foods. Eating oil-rich fish while pregnant will help to ensure you are getting all the vitamin D you need and will help your baby to have healthy levels. Young children benefit from eating oil-rich fish as they continue to need vitamin D to help their growing bones.
Fish’s package of nutrients has huge benefits for your baby – a recent study showed that the children of mothers who ate fish at least twice a week while pregnant had better verbal and social skills at age 8 compared to children whose mothers never ate fish. The benefits are thought to be linked to the omega-3 fats found mainly in oil-rich fish but all the minerals found in fish may also play a role.
Oil-rich fish, like trout and mackerel, are a rich source of the omega-3 fat DHA. DHA is essential for the healthy development of your baby’s brain – both in the womb and in the early months after birth. DHA is so important for brain development that it is found naturally in breast milk and is now added to baby milk formulas. DHA is needed for nerves to develop both in the brain and in the rest of the body. It is also essential in developing healthy eyes.
Did you know…?
75% of your brain cells develop before birth and the other 25% are in place before your first birthday? This is why good nutrition is so important for babies both in the womb and in the first year of life.
Apart from its role in developing your baby’s brain, the omega-3 fats found in fish may have another important job. Studies show that women who have good levels of omega-3 fats are much less likely to have a premature birth – meaning your baby is more likely to get to full term with all its benefits.
Omega-3 for brainy kids?
A study carried out in the UK 3 years ago showed that children with problems like dyslexia and ADHD improved when given a supplement of the omega-3 fat EPA. Following the study, food manufacturers started adding omega-3 to bread, milk, spreads and many other foods – the idea being that giving your kids omega-3 would make them smarter. Whilst kids do need omega-3 for healthy brain development, the huge benefits of taking omega-3 were only seen in children who already had learning problems. It’s no harm to give your child a good omega-3 supplement but better to get them into the habit of eating fish so that they get all the other benefits of this nutrient-rich food.
Fish and Mercury
Due to high levels of mercury in certain fish, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recommends that pregnant women and young children avoid swordfish, shark and marlin and limit tuna to one fresh steak or two tins per week. Very high levels of mercury may affect the development of nerves in unborn babies and young children so it is worth avoiding these fish. All other types of fish are safe to eat and eating fish has been shown to have many benefits both to pregnant mums and to their babies so remember to keep it on the menu.
So what’s the advice for fish?
To ensure you get all the benefits of fish for you and your baby, try to have fish at least twice a week and include oil-rich fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, herring or sardines at least once a week.