Seafood is packed with protein and other nutrients children need for healthy development, but according to a new report, compared to other meats, it’s a relatively small part of most American children’s diets. 

The report, published last month in the journal Pediatrics, explores the health advantages of eating seafood, and how pediatricians can point parents to the safest sources of fish. 

“We’re encouraging pediatricians to ask families about fish and shellfish consumption--since most children don’t eat much beyond the occasional fish sticks--and advise them on the healthiest choices,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

In addition to being protein dense with no saturated fat or sugar, many types of fish are high in vitamin D and calcium, and some are a rich source of long chain omega-3 fatty acids used by the body to build nerve cells in the brain and eyes. More research is needed, according to the AAP, but studies suggest seafood consumption may improve infant neurodevelopment and decrease cardiovascular disease risk. 

A growing body of research show that introducing fish early in a child’s diet may even help prevent allergic disease such as asthma and eczema.

Seafood consumption by U.S. children has declined every year since 2007. The main reason many families avoid feeding their children fish, and women avoid it during pregnancy, is methylmercury pollution.  Eating contaminated fish can have harmful effects on a child's developing nervous system.

Mercury is a naturally occurring metal that’s released into the air primarily by burning coal and some types of mining. When it settles into water, bacteria convert mercury into a more dangerous form, methylmercury. Methylmercury can build up in fish--especially those that eat other fish and live longer. These tend to be larger ocean species such as shark, swordfish, and orange roughy, but freshwater fish also can contain mercury, depending on where it is caught.

The AAP recommends that children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding eat one to two weekly servings of a variety of fish from those listed among the "best" and "good" choices identified by the US Food and Drug Administration. Salmon, light tuna, flounder, crawfish, sardines, cod and scallops are included in the "best" choices.

Families who eat freshwater fish they catch locally should check advisories and limit  servings to once a week if the body of water where they fish is not monitored, the report notes. 

The AAP also recommends that the sustainability of different types of fish and shellfish be factored into seafood choices. Some of the world’s fishing grounds are being over-harvested. In certain regions, especially for shrimp farming, child labor and environmentally damaging practices are used. In general, the best choices for sustainably caught or raised fish and shellfish most often come from U.S. fisheries, according the AAP.

Dr. Bernstein said learning about different types of fish and shellfish, and adding more of it to children’s diets, should be a goal of every family.

“For most types of seafood, the nutritional benefits far outweigh the risks,” he said.