Boosting Your Child’s Iron Intake
If you have a baby and are starting solids, you might have heard the word “iron” being thrown around a lot. That’s because iron is essential for growing babies and toddlers. The problem is, that iron deficiency is most common between the ages 6-24 months. From around 6 months of age iron levels start to deplete and the introduction of solids is necessary to maintain normal iron levels. Before this babies have enough iron from stores at birth and from the natural goodness in breast milk or formula.
While it is important that your child consumes enough iron from food, the overall composition of their diet (or, the types of foods consumed together) is also important to their iron status.
Iron is an essential nutrient for many reasons as it is:
- Needed for normal growth and brain development.
- Involved in energy production.
- Helps in maintaining a healthy immune system.
Low levels of iron can lead to your child:
- Appearing pale and lacking energy.
- Becoming uninterested in playing and learning.
- Complaining of headaches.
- Having a poor appetite.
- Developing cognitive and developmental delays.
*If you suspect iron deficiency in your child please consult your GP or paediatrician for diagnosis.
Important things you need to know about iron:
- Although breast milk contains less iron than cow’s milk, the iron in breast milk is up to 50% more bioavailable – meaning it is much better absorbed by the body compared with cow’s milk.
- Iron is generally poorly absorbed by the body. Only ~20% of iron absorbed from haem iron sources and between 2-8% from non-haem iron sources.
- What are haem iron sources? These come from animal foods and include red meat (the richest source of iron) – beef, lamb, veal; offal – liver, kidney; chicken; pork; egg yolks and fish.
- What are non-haem iron sources? These come from plant foods including wholegrain breads and cereals; lentils and legumes; nuts, seeds and nut butters; leafy green vegetables – e.g. spinach and broccoli, iron fortified breakfast cereals and some animal foods (red meat, eggs, cheese and cow’s milk also contain non-haem iron).
- Some dietary components help to INCREASE iron absorption: vitamin C (found in many fruit and vegetables) and meat and fish INCREASES iron absorption from non-haem iron sources.
- Other dietary components can DECREASE iron absorption: calcium (found in dairy foods), phytates (found in the husks of grains e.g bran and wheatgerm) and polyphenols (found in tea and coffee) DECREASE iron absorbtion from non-haem iron sources.
Here are our 5 top tips to maximise iron intake and absorption and prevent iron deficiency anaemia in babies and toddlers.
- Breastfeed exclusively during the first 4-6 months. For babies weaned early from the breast or formula fed from birth introduce an iron-fortified formula if you can.
- Wait until your child is at least 9-12 months before introducing cow’s milk and for those little milk-lovers try to limit the amount to a maximum of 720ml per day. This helps to encourage your child to have an appetite for solid foods.
- Try to include red meat (the richest source of iron) meals in your child’s diet 3-4 x per week and iron-rich foods in your child’s diet every day.
- Include a serve of vitamin C-rich fruits or vegetables with each meal to boost iron absorption. For many this may mean you offer fruit as part of your child’s main meals rather than between meals as a snack.
- Keep dairy, such as yoghurt, as a meal on it’s own, say for afternoon tea. Try not to offer milk when your children are eating their main meals, give it a good hour before you offer milk. This will help to keep both iron and calcium absorption high.
Iron-rich red meat meals
Finger and family food:
Examples of vegetarian meals that contain iron*
*remember, including vitamin C foods with plant sources of iron will help iron boost absorption.
Disclaimer: This information is intended for general use only. It does not constitute medical advice and is not intended to replace the personalised care and advice given to you by your health professional team. You as the reader/parent/caregiver must always discuss any concerns or questions about the health and well being of your baby or toddler with a healthcare professional. Please refer to our full disclaimer here.