When can babies eat sardines?
Sardines may be introduced as soon as your baby is ready to start solids, which is generally around 6 months of age. Among the fish lowest in mercury and highest in omega fatty acids, sardines are absolutely terrific for babies.
Background and origins of sardines
Sardines are small forage fish that are a vital food source for humans and oceanic creatures alike. They’re named after the Italian island of Sardinia, where little silver fish were once abundant, but they’re not native to Italy. The name “sardine” collectively describes multiple species of small forage fish that live in schools in both coastal and deep waters in the world’s oceans. Ever heard of brisling, herring, iwashi, kipper, pilchard, shad, or sprat? They’re each unique but all marketed as “sardines” around the world.1
Are sardines healthy for babies?
Yes! Sardines are great food for babies. They are high in calcium, iron, protein, B and D vitamins, and zinc. They also compete with salmon as one of the top seafood sources of omega-3 fatty acids—including the critical DHA—which fuel your baby’s eyesight, cardiovascular health, central nervous system development, and cell growth in this early stage of life.
Sardines are also much lower in mercury than other species of fish.2 There are many groups studying the effects of toxic metals in the human body, and the consensus is that our livers can handle small amounts of metals, but even moderate exposure over long periods of time can lead to damaging health concerns. A general rule of thumb is that the larger the sea animal, the higher the mercury concentration. The good news is that unlike large tuna, tiny sardines are low in mercury.
Sardines are sometimes sold fresh at fish counters but are more often preserved in aluminum cans and stocked by most American grocery stores and online retailers. So, what’s the difference between fresh and canned?
Fresh sardines are as delicious as they are nutritious. They have a tender, mild flesh that is dense and oily in the best way possible. If you see fresh sardines at your local fish market, buy them. These days, they’re a rare sight due to overfishing. Just be sure to freeze or cook them right away as they don’t keep for more than a day in the refrigerator.
Canned sardines taste just as great, plus they’re more readily available and affordable. They are also a fantastic alternative to canned tuna, which contains far greater amounts of mercury. Just be sure to read the fine print on the labels:
- Watch the salt. From fish to fruits and vegetables, canned products often have high levels of sodium. While sardines packed in oils and flavorings can have higher levels of nutrients thanks to preservation methods, they are often way too high in sodium for babies younger than 12 months old. Sardines packed in water that are marked “no salt added” or “low sodium” are safe options.
- Be careful with BPA. BPA is a chemical used to line the interior of cans and plastic bottles that can disrupt your baby’s bodily functions. Look for cans or pouches that are marked “BPA-free” when purchasing sardines for a baby.
There are also environmental considerations. Like so many other fish, wild sardines are overfished to the point where some regulatory bodies have banned the catch in an effort to avoid wiping out the fish populations. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that Pacific sardine populations have declined by approximately 98 percent since 2006, which led to a moratorium on commercial fishing of sardines along the West Coast in 2015.3 Sardine fishing there has remained closed ever since to allow time for the population to recover.4
Can my baby choke on fish?
Sardines are not high on the list of common choking hazard for babies, but they can be hard for new eaters to swallow. To aid swallowing, serve sardines with a moist dip or sauce, such as mayonnaise or yogurt. (You can also mix sardines into mayo or yogurt with a fork as you would with canned tuna to reduce the risk even further.) Regardless, stay close during mealtimes, as in theory, an individual could choke on any food.
Are sardines a common allergen?
Yes. Finned fish like sardines are a top food allergen.5 That said, it’s estimated that only 1% of Americans are allergic to finned fish.6 If you have a family history of allergies, or suspect your baby may be allergic to fish, consult an allergist before introducing sardines.
As with all new foods, introduce by serving a scant quantity of canned “no salt added” or “low sodium” sardines packed in water and watch closely as your baby eats. If there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the quantity over future servings.
How do you prepare sardines for babies with baby-led weaning?
Every baby develops on their own timeline. The preparation suggestions below are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional, one-on-one advice from your pediatric medical or health professional, nutritionist or dietitian, or expert in pediatric feeding and eating. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen here.
6 to 12 months old: Rinse canned sardines (removing the backbone and any bone fragments as you go) and serve either whole or if the fish is split in half, whole halves. You may also mix with mashed avocado, mayonnaise, olive oil, or yogurt to ease eating. From there, you can offer the sardine salad on pre-loaded spoons or serve atop thin rice cakes or baby crackers. Note: Even boneless sardines have hairline bone bits in them. These are soft and safe for your baby to eat. (And have loads of calcium!)
12 to 24 months old: For more advanced eaters, try breaking the fish into flakes then mix into a grain dish, add on buttered toast, or serve plain on a plate with a dollop of mayonnaise or tahini to encourage hand-scooping or fork practice. You can also continue to serve whole, or mashed (as described in the 6 month section above). Babies enjoy choice just like we do. When introducing a new food, try serving it two ways: for example, sardine salad and plain sardines. Every child is different, and certain textures and shapes will appeal to your baby more than others.
For more information on how to cut food for babies, visit our page on Food Sizes & Shapes.
If you bought “boneless sardines” and you see little hairline bones when you open the can, don’t fret. The sardine’s primary bones have been removed, and your babies can actually eat the tiny soft bones because they crumble easily.
Recipe: Sardine Toasts
- Canned sardines (boneless, “no salt added” or “low sodium”)
- Mayonnaise or avocado
- Chives or parsley (optional)
- Baby crackers, thin rice cakes, or whole-grain bread
- Open 1 or 2 tins of canned sardines. Wash the fish then transfer to a blender.
- Add a dollop or two of mayonnaise (or a half of an avocado), and a small spoonful of relish. Add some snipped herbs like chives or parsley if you like. Blend until smooth.
- Spread the sardine mix on a couple baby crackers or thin rice cakes to serve. Once your baby has developed stronger chewing and swallowing skills, try replacing the crackers with whole-grain bread.
- Store the rest of the mix in the fridge as a snack for mom or dad after baby goes to bed.
Canned sardines are versatile! They are delicious on their own with a squeeze of citrus. But if you want to get fancy, mix them into a tomato sauce and serve them with pasta. They pair well with strong spices like cumin and paprika and fresh herbs like chives, dill, and parsley.
E. Cerda, MSN, CNS, LDN
A. Gilbaugh, RD, CNSC
K. Grenawitzke, OTD, OTR/L, SCFES, IBCLC, CNT
S. Bajowala, MD, FAAAAI. (allergy section)
R. Ruiz, MD, FAAP Board-Certified General Pediatrician and Pediatric Gastroenterologist
- Zingerman, A. (2012, Jan. 20). The Surprisingly Rich History of Sardines. Zingerman’s Delicatessen. Retrieved February 20, 2020
- United States Food and Drug Administration. (2017, Oct. 25). Mercury levels in commercial fish and shellfish (1990-2012). Retrieved February 2, 2020
- Hill, K., Chrone, P., Dorval, E., et al. (2016, Mar. 16). Assessment of the Pacific sardine resource in 2016 for U.S.A. management in 2016-2017. Report prepared for Fisheries Resource Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, La Jolla, California. Retrieved February 2, 2020
- Arcuni, P. (2019, Apr. 16). Officials: No sardine fishing off California this year due to steep population decline. KQED News. Retrieved February 2, 2020
- Food Allergy Research & Education. Fish allergy.Retrieved January 27, 2020.
- Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team. Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis – Fish. Retrieved January 9, 2020