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Can a Breastfeeding Mother Eat Fish With Mercury?

By Sarah Davis

During pregnancy, women need to avoid several different types of foods that could lead to food-borne illnesses and potentially harm the developing baby. Once a woman gives birth and begins to breastfeed, food recommendations change. Good nutrition is essential for nursing women as well, especially since nursing requires extra energy each day. Whether or not to eat fish is a common concern for many breastfeeding women.

Benefits of Fish

There are many health benefits that nursing mothers can receive by eating fish. The United States Department of Agriculture explains that fish are full of omega-3 fatty acid, a type of unsaturated fatty acid that supports heart and brain health. Fish is also rich in protein and iron, two nutrients that help to keep energy levels high and ward off fatigue. The "Journal of the American Medical Association" states that DHA, a fatty acid found in fish, actually helps boost brain development in infants. Since this benefit can transfer through the breast milk to the baby, it’s not necessary for breastfeeding women to avoid all fish.

Mercury Risks

Methylmercury, also called mercury, is a chemical found in some types of fish and is stored in their fatty tissues. The danger of consuming foods with mercury is that the chemical can actually harm the nervous system. The United States Department of Agriculture states that if a breastfeeding woman consumes too much mercury through foods, it could transfer through the breast milk and harm the development of her young baby.

Types of Fish

Some types of fish are high in mercury and should be limited by nursing women, while other types of fish are low in mercury. Shark, tilefish, swordfish and mackerel are the highest in mercury, while fish such as tilapia, orange roughly, canned light tuna, salmon and pollock are lower in mercury and acceptable for breastfeeding women to eat. Kelly Bonyata, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), recommends that women who breastfeed eat canned tuna instead of tuna steaks since the canned products have less methylmercury.

Acceptable Portions

Even the low-mercury types of fish should not be consumed in excess, especially by nursing women. The United States Department of Agriculture states that nursing women can eat up to 12 oz. of fish and shellfish a week. That amount typically equates to two medium-sized servings of fish at dinner, or a few small cans of tuna per week.

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