Eating Fish and Seafood While Breastfeeding

Can you eat fish, shrimp, shellfish, and other seafood while you're breastfeeding?
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Seafood can be an important part of a healthy, well-balanced breastfeeding diet, as it contains nutrients important for both the breastfeeding parent and baby's health. Fish is high in protein and low in saturated fat. It contains many nutrients, including some that aren't found in many other foods, such as iodine, vitamin D, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Some of the nutrients in fish can help prevent heart disease and contribute to overall good health. Plus, when passed to your baby through your breast milk, nutrients like DHA are essential for the development of your baby's nervous system, brain, and eyes.

What About Mercury?

Mercury is a naturally occurring chemical element that becomes airborne through the burning of coal, oil, and wood as fuel. The airborne mercury can fall to the ground in raindrops or dust or from gravity. Mercury is toxic to the nervous system. Exposure during pregnancy is especially dangerous since large amounts can affect the brain and nervous system development of the growing baby.

Mercury in the environment can build up in fish. When those fish are eaten by larger fish, the mercury content of the larger fish grows. Greater amounts of mercury are seen in larger fish such as shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish. It's best to avoid these types of fish while you're breastfeeding. However, fish also delivers protein, omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B12 and D, and iron, among other nutrients that are important during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Safer Seafood Choices

Seafood sources that are lower in mercury include salmon, tilapia, catfish, sardines, canned light tuna, shrimp, scallops, crab, squid, lobster, and clams, among others (see the complete list at the FDA). You can safely enjoy these seafood products two to three times a week while you are breastfeeding.

Tips For Eating Fish While You're Breastfeeding

Mercury can pass from a nursing parent to a baby. Though this happens in smaller quantities than what passes through the placenta during pregnancy, it’s still a good idea to follow the same general fish intake guidelines that are recommended during pregnancy.

  • You can eat fish and other types of seafood that are lower in mercury up to 3 times a week.
  • If you purchase or catch fish from your local area, check to see if there are any environmental advisories or warnings for the waters in your region. Chemicals or other pollutants in the water can be dangerous if you're breastfeeding.
  • Eat a variety of fish each month. If you have the same kind of fish all the time, it limits the variety of nutrients you are getting. However, if you eat different types of seafood two or three times a week, you can take advantage of a variety of nutrients, such as the omega 3 fatty acid DHA.
  • The benefits of the nutrients fish and seafood provide are important. If you have to remove fish from your diet, or you decide to eat a vegetarian-type diet, you will need to get these nutrients (namely, DHA) from other sources. While plant sources like flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds do provide omega 3 fats, they are in the form ALA which needs to be converted to DHA in your body. It’s a less efficient process than eating sources of DHA. If you don’t eat DHA-rich fish, you will need to supplement with DHA (there are vegan DHA supplement options made from algae).
  • Talk to your healthcare provider or a nutritionist for more information about seafood, mercury, and omega-3 fatty acids.
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Article Sources

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.
  • Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Seventh Edition.  Mosby. 2011.
  • Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Part D: Chapter 5: Food Sustainability and Safety. Seafood and Sustainability. Appendix E-2.38: Evidence Portfolio. US Department of Health and Human Services. 2015: http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/14-appendix-e2/e2-38.asp
  • Riordan, J., Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2010.