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How to Get Enough Iron in Your Baby's Diet

 

Did you know that an iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in children worldwide? Iron is essential for the production of red blood cells and for the transportation of oxygen in the body and an iron deficiency in early childhood can result in development delays. But there’s good news! By serving your child iron-rich foods daily and being mindful about how to combine meals to maximize iron absorption, a deficiency can be easily prevented!

There are many sources of iron-rich foods from both plants and animals. You may have heard that children need to eat meat to get iron. It turns out, this is not true! There are plenty of fantastic, iron-rich plant foods and children growing up without meat are not necessarily more iron deficient than children who eat meat. Plants are also abundant in healthy fiber and protective phytochemicals, compounds that have been linked to stronger immune systems and a richer and more diverse gut microbiome. 

One thing to note: Iron from plants is not as readily absorbed as iron from animal sources. It’s therefore recommended that children raised on plant-based diets (vegetarian or vegan diets, for example), should consume up to 1.8 times more iron than the recommended daily allowance. For reference, the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron is 11 mg between the ages 6-12 months, and 7 mg between the ages of 1 – 3 years. (1)

To maximize your child’s ability to absorb iron from plants its good to always serve something rich in vitamin C to the meal. Vitamin C can help increase your little one’s iron absorption by up to five times! If your child’s meal doesn’t contain any vitamin C-rich veggies (think broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper or tomato), try serving a few berries or a little bit of fresh fruit as a dessert, for instance, a few pieces of mango, melon or kiwi. It’s also a good idea to wait to offer cows milk or any type of plant milk until your child is one year of age as milk can interfere with their ability to absorb iron. (1)

Here are a few meal ideas to get iron and vitamin C into your baby’s diet:

  • steamed tofu, quinoa and well-cooked broccoli
  • well-cooked soft beans or chickpeas and sweet potato
  • lentil stew/curry with brown rice and steamed spinach
  • bean or lentil patties with avocado and boiled carrots
  • pancakes on buckwheat, with strawberries and almond butter
  • pasta with lentil Bolognese and some mango on the side
  • smoothies with mango or berries and chia and hemp seeds
  • soft toasted bread with sunflower seed butter and kiwi on the side
  • iron fortified baby oat cereal with finely chopped dried fruit (boil the dried fruit or soak them over night to make them soft)

Here’s an idea of how much iron different foods contain: (4)

  • Iron-fortified baby cereal (1 port):  5.0 mg
  • Chia seeds (1 tbsp): 1.6 mg
  • Spinach cooked (¼ cup): 1.6 mg
  • Lentils boiled (¼ cup): 1.4 mg
  • Beef steak cooked (2 oz): 1.4 mg
  • Tofu extra firm steamed (2 oz): 1.2 mg
  • Chickpeas boiled (¼ cup): 1.2 mg
  • Almond butter (1 tbsp): 1.0 mg
  • Black beans cooked (¼ cup): 0.9 mg
  • Hemp seeds (1 tbsp): 0.8 mg
  • Quinoa cooked (¼ cup): 0.7 mg
  • Chicken breast cooked (2 oz): 0.6 mg
  • Egg boiled (1 medium sized): 0.5 mg
  • Sweet potato baked (¼ cup): 0.4 mg
  • Broccoli cooked (¼ cup): 0.3 mg
  • Brown rice cooked (¼ cup): 0.3 mg
  • Dried apricots (2 halves): 0.2 mg
  • Salmon cooked (2 oz): 0.2 mg

  • Most health authorities, including the American Pediatric Association and World Health Organization, recommend introducing solids to babies around six months of age because, according to some studies, that’s when iron stores from breast milk begin to deplete (2)(3). Between 6-12 months of age, your baby can only ingest a very small amount of food, making iron intake from food extra important! Another option to boost your baby’s iron intake would be to serve a portion of iron-fortified baby cereal. An organic oat- or barley-based cereal would be a good choice as they’ve been shown to contain significantly lower arsenic levels than rice-based cereals.

    If you are at all concerned about your child’s iron levels, you can always speak with your baby’s health care provider about the potential need for an iron supplement. Pediatricians typically check iron levels at your child’s 12-month visit, but you can always ask for additional testing at your child’s 9-month visit.  

    Bottom line:

    Iron is really important for growing babies and luckily there are many child-friendly foods that are rich in iron. By letting your little one enjoy those foods daily, for instance legumes, whole grains and dark green vegetables, together with some fruit or berries for an extra vitamin C kick, you can really help boost your baby’s iron intake!

    References:

    1. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc : a Report of the Panel on Micronutrients. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2001.
    1. Pediatrics, March 2012, VOLUME 129 / ISSUE 3: From the American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement: Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.
    1. World Health Organization, Statement on infant nutrition.
    1. Nutrition Coordinating Center Food & Nutrient Database (NCCDB)

     

    About the Author:

    Karin Gibson is a dietitian (registered in Sweden) who has experience working with children with food allergies, specific diet restrictions, eating disorders and failure to thrive. She currently lives in New York City where she runs her private practice, Grazing Greens. She specializes in plant-based diets and healthy eating during pregnancy and lactation, as well as how to raise healthy, well-nourished children. Follow: @grazinggreens