Iron is a crucial nutrient in both children’s and adults’ diets, and many parents worry their babies aren’t consuming enough of it.
Whether they’re still drinking from a bottle, still at the breast most of the time or are mostly dependent on solid food for meals now, adding iron-rich foods to your child’s diet is healthy and beneficial.
Although liquid and chewable vitamins are always an option, making sure a little one’s iron needs are met through food sources should be parents’ first step.
And fortunately, it’s not as difficult as you might think. There are plenty of iron-rich foods which are palatable and tasty for babies of all ages.
Of course, most parents want to know why their babies need iron, how much they should be consuming, and what the potential side effects are from having too much or not enough.
In this article, we’ll cover those concerns, plus recommend a list of iron-rich foods which are both easy to prepare and nutritious for your baby.
Why Do Babies Need Iron?
Iron is a nutrient the human body needs to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin helps deliver oxygen throughout the body’s cells via the blood. All our internal organs require oxygen for life, and a lack of iron can cause visible health problems.
While people of all ages need iron, it’s especially important for babies as they grow.
Dangers Of Iron Deficiency In Babies
For babies, having enough iron in the blood is critical for brain development. Oxygen deficiency in the brain can create serious health problems and even developmental issues.
For this reason, many pediatricians regularly test babies for iron levels, as do programs such as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children).
It can take a while for low iron symptoms to emerge, which is part of the reason why doctors like to check levels preemptively. A lack of iron indicates anemia, which – over time – can present with symptoms such as:
- Slow weight gain
- Pale skin
- Loss of appetite
Later on in life, babies who don’t get enough iron can develop problems concentrating, have a low attention span, and can feel weak and tired often. Adults can experience similar symptoms, too.
In general, people may not notice anemia symptoms and instead assume they or their children just need more sleep. It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms and take action as soon as possible.
How Much Iron Do Babies Need?
In general, babies are born with sufficient iron stores to carry them through the first six months of life. However, this isn’t always the case. Many babies wind up needing iron supplementation since their own stores are low. This group includes:
- Babies born prematurely
- Babies who weigh less than 3,000 grams (around 6.5 pounds) at birth
- Babies born to moms with poorly-controlled diabetes
- Babies with other underlying health conditions or nutritional deficiencies
Also, after the first six months, babies’ iron needs change. Infants between seven and twelve months old need about 11mg of iron per day.
Once older than one year of age, toddlers still need about seven mg per day, but it’s more likely older babies will get enough iron through eating table food alone since they need a lower amount.
For younger babies, parents often need to keep an eye on iron intake. However, it’s practically impossible for babies to get too much iron through their regular diets, so you may not need to worry about overdoing it.
Of course, you should keep liquid supplements out of reach of children, as high doses of concentrated iron can cause problems.
Signs your baby is consuming too much iron are tummy troubles like very black stools and constipation. Still, to consume enough iron to reach toxic levels, a baby would need to swallow multiple doses of an infant supplement – something responsible parents won’t allow to happen!
Iron in Formula
Most infant formula contains the recommended daily allowance of iron by default. Some formulas even offer added iron, with anywhere from four to 12 mg.
So, in most cases, babies who are exclusively formula fed are getting enough iron from their milk already.
Babies who receive formula as supplementation to breastfeeding may need extra iron, at least until they begin eating solid food.
Iron-fortified formula can cause constipation, so it’s ideal to know how much iron your child is already consuming before switching to a different formula with higher iron levels.
Some babies are more sensitive to the affects of excess iron, so you might notice tummy symptoms sooner if that’s the case with your little one.
Iron in Breastmilk
While formula usually contains enough iron to meet a baby’s daily requirements, breastmilk often has much less. Therefore, exclusively breastfed babies are at higher risk for iron deficiency after four months old.
At the same time, the iron which is present in a mom’s breastmilk is more easily absorbed by her baby than the iron present in formula. So, while levels of iron may be lower, it’s more digestible for the baby overall.
Still, many pediatricians recommend giving breastfed babies an iron supplement until they begin eating iron-rich solid foods.
An alternative is to have your baby’s blood checked for iron on a regular basis. This can show you whether your baby truly needs supplementation in the form of drops or a multivitamin, or is getting enough iron as it stands.
Remember, premature babies and those born with other issues may need additional iron, too.
Most sources also suggest moms whose babies exclusively breastfeed should also take a multivitamin. This way, both moms and babies get the nutrients they need for optimal health.
An Important Note About Baby’s First Year In Life
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that ideally, a baby is exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives.
For mothers not able to directly breastfeed their little ones via skin to skin contact, bottle feeding pumped breast milk is the next best alternative. For moms not able to do either, resorting to feeding infant formula is the only option left.
For the first six months of a baby’s life, milk (whether breast milk or formula milk) is all they need for growth and development.
They should start being introduced to solid foods only when they reach the six months of age mark. Even then, they’ll still be getting most of their nutritional requirements met from milk (either breast milk or formula milk) until they’re one year of age.
Introducing Iron Rich Foods To Babies For The First Time
While some babies will try any food without ill effects, others develop allergies relatively easily. And while you might expect an allergy to present itself the first time you offer a new food, it doesn’t typically happen until the second or subsequent taste test.
Common signs of an allergic reaction in babies include:
- Skin rashes or flushing
- Red eyes
- Hives or welts
- Face, lip, or tongue swelling
- Wheezing or coughing
- Vomiting or diarrhea
Although many babies can eat a wide range of foods without allergic issues, some babies have unpredictable allergies.
It’s possible to be allergic to meat, legumes, vegetables, and fruit, so be vigilant about introducing new dishes and space them out accordingly.
Traditionally, one of the most popular “first foods” for babies is fortified cereal.
However, cereals such as rice, wheat, barley, oatmeal, and others can cause allergic reactions in babies. In general, rice cereal is considered the “safest” cereal and least likely to cause a reaction.
Experts suggest mixing a teaspoon or two of rice cereal with breastmilk or formula for your baby’s first meal. Over time, if your baby doesn’t show signs of an allergy, you can both thicken the cereal and mix larger amounts.
Work up to feeding your baby about half a cup of rice cereal per day, mixed with formula or breastmilk. You can also add different varieties of cereal, allowing a week or so for any reaction to present itself.
Half a cup of iron-fortified infant cereal will give your baby around 10 mg of iron, nearly fulfilling their daily requirement in a single meal alone. Of course, you can also feed less cereal and more of a variety of foods to round out their iron intake.
Heme Versus Non-Heme Iron
There are two different types of iron; heme and non-heme. Heme iron is present in meats and is more easily absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron comes from plant sources, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, and cereals.
Both are valuable sources of iron for your little one, however, and there’s no “bad” source of iron overall.
Of course, to encourage optimal absorption of iron, you should also consider adding vitamin C-rich foods to your baby’s diet.
Vitamin C helps the body more efficiently use its iron stores – so foods like oranges, tomatoes, green & red peppers, leafy greens, and sweet potatoes are also great for babies, barring any food allergies.
Natural Foods High In Iron For Babies
Unlike formula and cereals, many other iron-rich foods don’t require fortification. Naturally iron-rich foods include meat, legumes, fruit, and vegetables.
The following list discusses some of the top choices when it comes to iron-rich foods for babies. Remember to introduce each food gradually and in small amounts until you ensure your baby isn’t allergic to any of these and can digest the food properly.
Leafy greens like spinach and kale are high in iron, but for younger babies, cooked and blended foods are easiest to eat. Therefore, spinach is an ideal iron-rich first food for babies.
Raw spinach has about .8 mg of iron per cup, but since it cooks down so much, you’re better off sautéing it in water before blending it for baby.
Half a cup of cooked spinach contains about 3 mg of iron, and you can add fruit or other vegetables in to the mix to make it more palatable if your baby doesn’t appreciate the flavor.
Meats such as beef, lamb, pork, liver, chicken, and turkey are naturally high in iron. And while cereals are traditional first foods for babies, the flavor of meat might be a welcome addition to their plates.
The most critical part of preparing meat for babies, though, is ensuring it’s thoroughly cooked. Otherwise, they might get really sick.
Recommendations for temperature and cooking duration vary, so be sure to cook each type of meat to the safest doneness possible. Once you fully cook the meat, blend it with a bit of water, formula, or breastmilk to achieve the thickness you want.
Serving sizes vary, but turkey, for example, contains around 2.3 mg in a 3.5-ounce portion. Beef contains about 3 mg of iron per 3-ounce serving, while chicken has 1.1 mg per 3-ounce serving.
Legumes are a group of foods which includes beans and lentils.
For example, a half-cup of boiled lentils contains about 3 mg of iron. You can boil the lentils in water, add any desired baby-safe spices (for older babies only), and then blend or mash until they reach the right consistency.
Other legumes such as black and pinto beans contain nearly two mg per half-cup serving, while soybeans contain about 4.4 mg per half-cup serving. Green peas contain about 1 mg of iron per half-cup serving.
Not to mention that these foods also tend to be high in fiber as well.
Pro tip: Choose yellow lintels over red or brown lintels. They tend to be easier to digest and don’t cause as much gas trouble.
As long as your little one isn’t allergic to eggs, they’re an excellent addition to their diets if you’re trying to up iron intake.
Hard boiled eggs are the way to go at first, and once your baby gets used to that you can move on to feeding them scrambled eggs if they enjoy it that way.
Even if your baby doesn’t need the tummy help that prunes have to offer, they’re still high in iron, making them a beneficial first food.
Dried fruits are best introduced to your baby’s diet between nine months and twelve months of age.
Half a cup of prunes contains about 1 mg of iron, while raisins rank at about 1.3 mg per half cup and dried apricots at 1.75 mg.
Keep in mind, though, that dried fruit can contain a lot of sugar, whether natural or added.
With that being said, prunes and apricots are often available in baby food versions, or you can do your own mix your own at home.
Ever considered adding oily fish to your baby’s diet one or two times a week? The options to choose from are endless: tuna (1 mg of iron in 3 ounces), salmon, sardines, trout, herring … and the list goes on.
Not only are these excellent sources of iron, they’re also excellent sources of Omega-3 essential fatty acids.
Just be careful not to over-do it with the number of times you serve fish per week, or else you run the risk of toxin buildup in their bodies. Two servings of oily fish a week is more than enough to reap the benefits.
Be sure to remove any bones before giving your baby fish to eat, since this can easily become a choking hazard.
If you’re into seafood, you could also throw some shrimp (2 mg of iron in 4 ounces) and clams (3 mg of iron in 4 ounces) into the mix.
An excellent choice for all the vegetarians out there looking for a quality iron source food. A 4 ounce serving of tofu contains around 6 mg of iron.
If there ever was an easy finger food to prepare, one that kids adore, it’s Tofu.
A half cup of quinoa contains around 8 mg of iron, which makes it an excellent option for vegetarian families or babies who aren’t too fond of meat.
It could also be used as an alternative to rice in many different recipes.
With 5 mg of iron in one cup of sweet potatoes, this is an excellent choice of food for babies – especially if you get creative with it.
If your little one’s in love with french fries, you can try a much healthier alternative of sweet potato fries instead!
Just be sure not to give your baby or toddler whole nuts, since that’s a choking hazard waiting to happen. Nuts in the form of flour, butter or paste are a-okay, though – assuming your little one has no allergies to them.
Almond paste, peanut butter, cashew butter, etc .. the options are endless. If getting these from the store, read the label first and make sure it’s not loaded with extra salt and sodium first.
When baby’s old enough to start drinking juice, offering a cup of natural prune juice ups their iron intake by 3 milligrams.
A cup of natural prune juice could also come in super handy to relieve your little one from congestion.
Other Iron-Rich Infant Foods
While the above foods have the highest iron content, there are other foods which contain enough iron to help boost overall levels as well.
For example, winter squash, broccoli, and many grains also contain iron.
Adding these foods to your infant’s meals can help fill gaps in terms of nutrition and iron intake, but all foods should be pureed to an almost liquid consistency for very young babies.
Then, you can thicken the mixture and add more flavors as your baby’s palate and chewing ability expands.
Avoid Stuff That Decrease Iron Absorbency
Besides making sure you include a variety of the different iron rich foods mentioned above in your baby’s diet when they’re old enough to start eating solids, you should also make sure they’re not taking in anything that might decrease their body’s ability to absorb iron – starting from a very young age.
Examples of such “iron stoppers” include:
- Tea (except some herbal teas which are baby-safe)
- Unprocessed bran
- Cow’s milk given for baby to drink, in fresh or powdered form, before the age of 1. Babies older than 1 year should not drink more than a maximum of 2 cups of cow’s milk a day.
Wrapping It Up
Of course, the most important part of feeding your infant solid food is offering a variety of safe and nutritious options.
Not only does offering various foods allow your baby to discover new things, but it also helps deliver the most nutrients to his or her diet. Variety really is the key to healthy meals.
While keeping an eye out for allergic reactions is key, encouraging your baby to try different textures and flavors can help expand their tastes.
It also means they’re more likely to continue trying new and nutritious foods as they grow and depend more fully on table food versus formula or breastmilk.
After all, iron is important not just for babies, but for older kids as well. Even adults who find themselves with anemia learn how much of an impact iron can have on their energy levels and overall wellness.
Giving our babies enough iron early in childhood prepares their brains and bodies for growth and development. It also encourages healthy habits they’ll hopefully continue to maintain throughout their lives.