Your baby is growing and developing at a rapid pace, right before your eyes. It seems like she masters a new skill every day, and you can’t believe that once tiny peanut has grown out of yet another size of clothes.

All of this growing requires nutrients – protein, fat, vitamins and minerals – all of them important. Iron is a mineral that is essential to your baby’s growth and development, and iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in older infants. In this article, you’ll learn why iron is important and how to ensure that your baby gets enough of it.

Why does my baby need iron?
Iron is essential to the development of your baby’s muscles and brain. Iron deficiency in babies can result in delays in motor skills, as well as learning and behavioral problems that have been shown to last at least until adolescence. Iron is also part of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. A baby with severe iron deficiency will have low hemoglobin and be anemic.

How do I know if my baby is at risk for iron deficiency?
Most babies are born with enough iron stores to meet their needs for about the first 6 months of life. You can think of this storage iron as baby’s first savings account. During pregnancy, iron crosses the placenta from the mother to the baby. After birth, the baby “spends” this iron for the first 6 months and doesn’t add any more to the savings account. Babies that are born prematurely or very small have lower iron stores at birth, so they will use up their storage iron faster.

Breast milk is low in iron, so the storage iron is critically important. Babies absorb and use the small amount of iron in breast milk, but it isn’t enough to meet all of their needs. As the iron stores get used up, your baby needs to start getting iron from her food. If your baby is breastfed, older than 6 months, and not getting good sources of iron in her diet, then she is at risk for iron deficiency. We’ll talk about good dietary sources of iron in the next section.

If your baby is fed formula, just make sure that you are feeding an iron-fortified formula. It is still important to start your baby on good food sources of iron between 4 and 6 months of age, but babies fed an iron-fortified formula rarely have problems with iron deficiency during this transition.

If you breastfeed your baby, you might be thinking: “Wait a second! My breastfed baby is at higher risk for iron deficiency?! I thought breast milk was the best way to feed my baby?” Breast milk absolutely provides optimal nutrition for your baby and is the only source of nutrients that your baby really needs until she is 6 months old. By 6 months, she needs to start eating solid foods so that she can get enough iron, among other nutrients. Breast milk is still a very important part of her diet, and if possible, you should continue breastfeeding until your baby is at least a year old.

How can I ensure that my baby gets enough iron?
A 6- to 12-month-old baby needs to eat about 11 mg of iron per day. The easiest way for your baby to get this much iron is to eat 2 servings of fortified baby cereal each day. However, not all babies love baby cereal, and some parents prefer to feed their babies more “whole” foods. Here are some other strategies to increase iron in your baby’s diet:

  1. Introduce your baby to a variety of iron-rich foods. Good sources of iron include liver, meat, egg yolk (avoid egg whites until 1 year), beans, lentils, and leafy greens like spinach.
  2. Get creative with fortified cereals. If your baby won’t eat baby cereals, try some cereals that are made for adults, like Cream of Wheat or Malt-O-Meal. These do not have as much iron as baby cereals, but they are still fortified and are good sources of iron. If your baby has a few teeth, you can try dry cereals such as Cheerios, which are also fortified. You can also use baby cereal to make muffins or pancakes for your baby, a great option if she prefers finger foods.
  3. Feed vitamin C with cereals. Vitamin C can double the absorption of iron from cereals and grains. If you give your baby multivitamin drops that contain vitamin C, give these with a meal containing cereal. Otherwise, offer good food sources of vitamin C, such as citrus, strawberries, cantaloupe, kiwifruit, raspberries, broccoli, or potatoes.
  4. Limit dairy with meals. The calcium in dairy products inhibits the absorption of iron from other foods. Save cheese and yogurt for between-meal snacks, and wait until your baby’s first birthday to introduce cow’s milk.

Should I give my baby an iron supplement?
Many pediatricians recommend iron drops for all breastfed babies starting at 4 months of age, but this is somewhat controversial, so have a discussion with your pediatrician about the pros and cons. Otherwise, most pediatricians will test babies for anemia at their 9- or 12-month appointment. If there is concern that your baby is not getting enough iron in her diet, your pediatrician can also do a separate test for iron deficiency. If your baby is anemic or has low iron, your pediatrician will probably recommend an iron supplement.

Where can I go for more information?
The author’s blog – scienceofmom.com – offers articles on Why Breastmilk Is So Low in Iron and 5 Practical Ways to Increase Iron in Your Baby’s Diet, which includes a table of iron values in common baby foods.

Bio:
Alice Callahan, PhD, is a research scientist turned stay-at-home mom. She writes about kids’ health and nutrition, as well as her adventures in mothering, at scienceofmom.com. She also has a book: The Science of Mom: A Researched Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.