Iron – Is my baby getting enough?

I had an email from my lovely friend Bridget yesterday asking how she can get more iron into her 6 month old boy. She was advised to start solids early and he is enjoying his solids but only eating fruits and vegetables so far. I remember panicking when Freddie refused the spoon, convinced that there was no way he was getting enough iron and that this would effect his physical and mental development.

Iron is an essential mineral for good health and well-being. It helps carry oxygen to the brain and muscles, keeping us physically and mentally strong and helping children to learn. In addition our immune system needs iron to work well.

A baby or toddler that is ‘iron deficient’ may show some of the following signs:

  • Pale
  • Tired
  • Irritable
  • Poor concentration
  • Susceptible to sickness
  • Reduced weight gain
  • Feels cold
  • Difficulty sleeping

If you are at all concerned you should talk to your doctor who can prescribe iron medicine.

So how much iron do babies, toddlers and children need? Young babies and toddlers need plenty of iron in their diet. According to the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation the recommended daily iron intake is as follows:

  • Babies (7-12 months) 11mg
  • Children (1-3yrs) 9mg
  • Children (4-8yrs) 10mg

Interestingly these levels are higher than the UK Department of Health Guidelines. Babies’ iron stores begin to significantly deplete at 6 months so they will be more susceptible to iron deficiency. To prevent this their diet should include iron rich foods three or four times a day. At 6 months the NZ guidelines suggest introducing the following foods in a fine smooth, runny or puréed consistency:

  • cooked: apple, pear, peach(no skins) uncooked: banana
  • uncooked: avocado, cooked: kumara, potato, pumpkin, carrot, kamokamo, marrow
  • baby rice cereals
  • cooked puréed meat, pork, chicken and fish
  • cooked puréed legumes and lentils
  • cooked rice

Once your baby has had it’s first tastes of fruits, vegetables and possibly baby cereals you can then start to introduce meat, fish, legumes and lentils by 7 months. The advice is to only try a new food every 2-4 days. Remember they won’t like everything straight away or sometimes ever… Freddie still won’t eat avocado! Annabel Karmel has a very helpful first tastes meal planner in her book The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner. I didn’t follow it to the letter but it gave me some ideas of where to start.

So here are a few possible ways to up the iron intake. I can’t promise your baby will love meat straight away. I think, for us, introducing meat was the start of why Freddie rejected the spoon as he didn’t like the texture or the taste. He will now happily gobble it down so they do all get there in the end!

  • Some babies really don’t like the metallic taste of meat so when you start to introduce it try to combine it with another food they really like. Mixing meat with apple or pear can be a real hit for some babies as it sweetens it and takes the metallic taste away.
  • The grainy texture can put babies off so it is a good idea to make sure it is really well puréed. Mixing with other veggies and fruit can soften the texture. Purée the meat with it’s cooking juice once cooked.
  • If your baby is really fussy about the texture then one option is bought jars for the first stage as they are much smoother than the consistency you can achieve at home even with a moule.
  • Chicken and fish are both sources of iron that are good starting points as they are easy to purée. Chicken thighs have higher levels of iron than chicken breasts.
  • Add liver into your baby’s food. You can keep a piece of liver in the freezer and then grate off a small amount when required. Avoid giving more that 15g (3 tsps) a week as it is high in vitamin A which in high levels can harmful.
  • Follow meals with fruit for a source of vitamin C as this aids iron absorption.
  • Enriched cereals can provide an initial source of iron and by mixing with breast milk or formula you can make them taste familiar. You could stir these cereals into foods your baby enjoys. This source is not absorbed as well as meat sources. One downside is that baby cereals do make some babies constipated.
  • The advice is to offer meat 3 or 4 times a week. If you are concerned your baby isn’t getting enough iron you can always offer iron rich foods more frequently, a little and often approach. Including meat also increases the absorption of iron from plant and legume sources.
  • There are some helpful recipe ideas for all ages at beef and lamb new zealand  and their handout ‘Is your baby getting enough iron?’ is very informative.

As your baby gets older and the variety of what they can and will eat gets bigger it is easier to include iron reach foods so stick at it. When they start on finger foods strips of meat or toast with marmite, followed by fruit are great finger foods that are very high in iron.

I hope that my response helps you Bridget and might help some other Mums out there feeling the same way. Let me know how you get on.

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6 thoughts on “Iron – Is my baby getting enough?

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