Something's fishy when it comes to childhood asthma. According to a new study from the Netherlands, eating fish for the first time between the age of 6 and 12 months could lower babies' risk for developing asthma-like symptoms—a benefit that may last until children are 4 years old.
However, your baby's age matters here—a lot—because this same study found that introducing fish before 6 months, or waiting until after a child's first birthday, can actually increase babies' asthma risk.
The study of 7,200 children, born between 2002 and 2006, found that 1,281 children ate fish in their first six months of life, according to parent interviews, 5,498 first ate fish in the next six months, and 431 did not eat fish until after age one.
By age 4, between 40 and 45 percent of children who held off on eating fish until after their first birthdays, or who ate fish before six months, experienced wheezing (a common symptom of asthma), compared to 30 percent of children who first ate fish sometime between the 6- and 12-month mark.
Far from a small statistical blip, this actually works out to be a 36 percent lowered risk for wheezing. Researchers speculate that early (but not too early) exposure to certain fatty acids in fish may protect against the development of asthma.
Is there a catch? Maybe—in the form of uncertainty by many parents about how exactly to introduce fish into their baby's diet. It's not exactly a traditional first food, and for some babies, fish may be an allergen.
According to the USDA, the first step in offering fish is to choose one that is low in mercury (following the basic same guidelines you did during pregnancy); haddock and salmon are usually good choices. Also make sure it's fish—not shellfish—that you are feeding your baby. Feeding any type of shellfish (shrimp, lobster, crab, crawfish, scallops, oysters, clams) to babies less than one year old may cause severe allergic reactions in some infants.
Before serving, closely examine the fish to remove all bones. Then have some fun! Depending on how comfortable your baby is with solids, pureeing fish and adding fruits or vegetables for texture can be a palate-pleasing way to reel in health benefits.