When Can Children Eat Shellfish?

Shellfish can be an acquired taste. But if your baby is grabbing at your fork and begging for a piece of crab cake, you might wonder if it's safe for him to eat. If he's over age 4 to 6 months, the answer is technically yes. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that babies over this age can eat any type of food without increasing their risk of developing a food allergy. While allergy might be your first concern when it comes to shellfish, a shellfish dinner can present other risks for children.

Allergy Risks

Approximately 2.3 percent of Americans have a shellfish allergy, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology 1. Most react to crustaceans, including shrimp, lobster and crab rather than mollusks such as oysters. Reactions to shellfish occur more commonly in adults than in children, but children with a shellfish allergy generally don't outgrow it. Shellfish allergies send more people over age 6 to the hospital with an allergic reaction than any other food, the AAAI warns. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include difficulty breathing, wheezing, rash, hives or facial swelling. In severe cases, anaphylaxis can cause collapse. Give your child just a small amount of shellfish to start and watch carefully for signs of a reaction, especially if you have a family history of allergies.

Raw Shellfish Risks

Raw shellfish, particularly mollusks, can contain bacteria that pose risks for children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Mollusks filter water through their bodies, so if the waters they live in contain bacterial or viral contaminants such as:

  • Vibrio vulnificus
  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis E
  • cryptosporidium
  • salmonella
  • shigella
  • Norwalk-like virus
  • enterovirus
  • this can pose a risk to those who eat them
  • according to the University of Rochester Medical Center 3

Cooking shellfish to an internal temperature of 145 F kills the organisms. If the shells don't open during cooking, the organisms inside might not be destroyed; discard these shells.

Mercury Levels

The oceans contain many industrial waste contaminants, which find their way into the fish and shellfish that live there. When your child eats shellfish, it's important to keep an eye on his mercury intake. Just like fish, shellfish can contain some amount of the waste product methylmercury, which can cause neurological damage if ingested in large quantities. Limit your child's intake of shellfish and fish to two servings or no more than 12 ounces per week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises 2.

Safe Servings

Many shellfish, such as shrimp or lobster, are too tough for an infant to chew. The University of Michigan Health System suggests waiting until after age 4 to give foods that are difficult to chew 5. Hold off on foods such as crab cakes, which combine a number of different ingredients, including other potential allergens such as eggs. If your baby has a reaction, you won't know which food caused it.

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