Audio Transcript: Iron rich foods for babies
First published: Mar 20th/2018; Updated: Mar 5th/2019
What to offer first when baby starts eating real food?
We don’t often talk about single nutrients…
We really prefer to talk about whole foods, plates, and meals (isn’t that what we eat after all?).
But when it comes to feeding baby solid foods, it’s important to stop and discuss iron needs.
Isn’t food before one just for fun?
Breast milk and/or formula is the best for babies until about 6 months of age.
There are various reasons to start introducing solid foods around 6 months, including:
- Babies need iron rich food, as their iron stores are running out after 4-6 months of age
- Babies become physiologically ready to eat solids
- Babies can safely practice eating real food: chewing and swallowing appropriate food items.
For babies 6-12 months of age, we often hear complementary feeding, meaning that food is complementing milk feedings.
But food before one is NOT just for fun
So continue breastfeeding or formula feeding as the main source of milk.
And introduce solid foods, paying attention to offering iron-rich foods at least twice a day.
The goal is that your child follows the family routine and eats family meals and snacks by 1 year of age.
That usually means 3 meals, and 2-3 snacks per day.
Milk + iron-rich solid foods is what baby needs around 6 months of age
What is iron?
Iron is a mineral that carries oxygen in your body. Oxygen is essential for organs to function normally.
How does it happen?
Iron is part of a bigger molecule called “hemoglobin”, found in our blood.
You can imagine hemoglobin as a limo.
Iron is the driver. Starting at the lungs, packing its hemoglobin-car with oxygen, iron drives around the body.
Iron then drops off his oxygen-passenger at different stops: all the organs of the body.
We all need enough iron to get enough oxygen, and survive!
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia are consequences of a lack of iron.
Low iron intake or malabsorption of iron in the body can cause iron deficiency.
When iron deficiency is not treated, it can progress and affect hemoglobin concentration. A low concentrations of hemoglobin is called anemia.
Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, irritability, loss of appetite. Most of the time, iron deficiency comes without symptoms in babies.
Iron deficiency and anemia can have lasting consequences on baby’s brain development.
If not treated, a baby with iron deficiency can have long term neurodevelopmental and behavioral consequences.
These consequences can be irreversible.
Iron deficiency can happen without symptoms and have severe consequences for baby.
For more information on iron metabolism:
Which babies are at risk of iron deficiency?
Most of baby’s iron store accumulates in the last 8 weeks of pregnancy.
If the mother is anemic during pregnancy, it will impact baby’s ability to store appropriate iron.
Babies born prematurely may also suffer from reduced iron stores, as the critical 8 week window of building iron stores is cut short.
Quickly cutting the umbilical cord at birth may put baby at risk for low iron status.
Recent evidence indicates that delayed cord clamping at birth is an effective way to improve baby’s iron status in the first year of life.
Babies born with a low birth weight might also be at higher risk of low iron stores.
If you and your baby have experience any of these situations, talk to your doctor and dietitian.
Babies born at term from mothers with adequate iron status are also likely to have adequate iron stored until 6 months of age.
Why begin with iron rich foods for babies starting solid foods?
Whenever you judge it’s time to start solid food, choose the method that fits your parenting style. Then, pay attention in offering baby iron-rich foods.
Target iron-rich food at least twice a day. It will ensure baby has multiple occasions to eat food containing iron everyday.
Around 6 months of age, baby’s appetite can be little (and fluctuating from day-to-day). So, offering iron-rich foods at each meal ensures that baby’s bites are packed with nutrients!
But don’t fret it! Some days, baby won’t eat anything, and other days you might have to offer a second (or third) serving.
It can be reassuring to look at baby’s food intake on a weekly basis rather than on a daily basis. This can help parents avoid worrying about how much baby eats.
Yes iron is important, but not to the point of forcing your baby to eat more. If you have concerns, it is always a good idea to meet a dietitian or ask your doctor.
Growing babies need iron, and milk alone is not sufficient after 6 months of age.
Examples of iron rich foods for babies
There are 2 types of iron found in food.
Heme iron = from animal sources, very well absorbed by our body
- Meat: beef, veal, pork, liver
- Poultry: chicken (dark meat), turkey
- Whole eggs
- Formula (in Canada, most formulas are iron-fortified)
- Breast milk (low content but very well absorbed)
Non-heme iron = plant-based sources, not as well absorbed by our body
- Nut and seed butter
- Legumes and beans
- Infant cereals (enriched in iron)
As always, a winning strategy is to offer varied food options.
Besides getting enough nutrients, baby will discover new tastes and textures!
Breast milk technically contains low level of iron, but the bioavailability is very high. That means iron absorption from breast milk is very efficient.
Infant formula contains much more iron than breast milk, but the bioavailability is not as good.
This means iron from formula generally has lower absorption, and explains why greater amounts of iron are added to formula (compared to matching typical iron values in breast milk).
This way, all babies meet their iron needs!
Lots of sources of iron to choose from. Variety is always a good idea!
Vitamin C maximizes the absorption of iron
It is a good idea to pair iron-rich food with a source of vitamin C so that the absorption of iron is maximal.
- Fruits: citrus fruits, berries, kiwis, watermelon …
- Veggies: peppers, broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes …
No need to start worrying about food combinations!
The best strategy, and the most natural one, is to adopt a balanced plate (yes, even for baby!).
Offer baby a mini version of the balanced plate:
- Source of iron (typically found in protein foods)
- Source of vitamin C (found in fruits & veggies)
- Grain products
- Source of fat
This way, baby’s meal can resemble to your own meal following the balanced plate.
This will also help get baby to progress towards family meal. Around 1 year of age, baby should eat like the family.
A major advantage is not having to cook several meals each day!
Offering a mini version of the balanced plate ensure baby tastes new flavours and gets all of the required nutrients.
Iron rich foods for baby led weaning
Iron rich foods are especially important for babies eating solids through baby-led weaning.
Babies may not swallow a lot at first, but they can suck on the juices of meat or lick infant cereals.
Some great options at this stage include:
- Scrambled eggs
- Slow cooked meat
- Tender dark poultry
- Mashed beans
Ensure baby gets enough iron by offering iron rich foods twice a day as part of baby-led weaning.
Iron rich foods for babies eating purées
When feeding purées, select iron-rich foods.
Use formula or breastmilk to adjust texture without diluting the nutrient content.
Avoid making purées using water.
Offer iron-rich purées at each meal, and you can also offer veggie or fruit purées to get the key vitamin C.
It’s important to offer iron rich purées at each meal for babies starting to eat.
How can I get my child to eat more iron?
It’s important to remember that parents can never “get their child to eat”.
It isn’t the parents’ job to force their kids to eat. That is true from the first day of life.
Following the “division of responsibilities of feeding,” parents decide the WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN.
So parents are responsible for offering a variety of foods adapted to baby’s age. This includes iron-rich foods at least twice/day when baby starts eating solid food.
Baby is responsible to decide IF and HOW MUCH to eat. Without pressure, in a calm environment, with opportunity to learn.
Maximize the chances of baby getting all the nutrients needed by offering iron rich food several times/day.
Iron rich foods for vegetarian babies
It is possible to raise a vegetarian or a vegan baby.
Depending on your family’s food choices, you can offer plant-based foods that are rich in iron.
- Seed and nut butter
- Infant cereals
If you are unsure your baby meets all her/his needs, ask for advice from your dietitian.
There are some risks in cutting whole food groups from your diet; but with knowledge and smart moves in the kitchen, there is no reason your kid won’t thrive!
Vegetarian and vegans babies can thrive when parents are well-informed and make appropriate nutrition choices.
Aren’t vegetables the best thing to give to babies learning to eat?
Some parents assume babies need a cut-down version of adult nutritional guidelines. For example, feeding babies a lot of veggies.
It is reasonable enough, but, kids are not little adults.
They are unique, and have their own growing needs.
Did you know babies double in size and height in less than a year?! Remarkable! That generally doesn’t happen to adults.
Babies actually need energy-dense, and iron-rich foods foremost.
Yes, babies need the other good stuff your family is eating, but fat and iron are the two key nutrients to remember.
QUOTE: Yes veggies are good for babies, but make sure to offer iron rich foods too!
Why is iron deficiency common in toddlers?
Even when babies eat well, there is a risk of iron deficiency.
Most of the time, it is because baby drinks too much milk.
Milk and plant-based milk alternatives are good, but they can displace iron-rich foods and other solids.
This is why your shouldn’t introduce milk earlier than 9-12 months of age (LINK: https://familyandconutrition.com/cowsmilkandsippycup/).
It’s fine to use milk in recipes, but breastmilk or formula should be the main drinking milk at this age.
We want baby to progress towards more solid foods than milk, so we should aim to offer water with meals.
As baby eats more and more solids, baby will drink less and less milk.
If you feel like baby is not progressing well, or you can’t move past the milk bottle, get in touch with your dietitian.
Babies that drink too much cow’s milk and milk alternatives may be at risk of iron deficiency.
Does my child need an iron supplement?
A child who drinks and eats well won’t need an iron supplement.
The exceptions are children with specific medical conditions. Your doctor or a registered dietitian may recommend an iron supplement in this case.
Other conditions that may need an iron supplement:
- Premature babies
- Babies with low birth weight
- Mama was anemic during pregnancy
- The umbilical cord was cut quickly at birth (rather than delayed cord clamping)
- Consult your doctor about the need to test baby’s iron blood status.
Moreover, some children have trouble eating, or experience digestive issues (reflux, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, etc.).
This may impact iron status, and warrants talking to your doctor and dietitian.
Food wise, offering your child iron rich food, veggies, fruits, and grain products twice/day, will help ensure adaquate iron intake.
Healthy babies do not need an iron supplement if they eat well and have no specific conditions. Ask your health care practitioner if you have doubts.
Can too much iron make a baby constipated?
It’s normal for baby’s stools to dramatically change when you start introducing food.
It will change in texture, odor, color, and frequency.
If baby doesn’t have hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass, continue introducing solid foods and milk on demand.
Food sources of iron are not likely to create constipation in babies.
Although, some babies are more sensitive to iron-fortified products, such as infant cereals.
If you think your baby doesn’t tolerate infant cereals well, offer other sources of iron.
Iron supplements can lead to constipation in babies.
If your doctor suggested an iron supplement, but you think it’s causing constipation, revisit this with your doctor.
Is your baby having constipation related problems? Seek advice from your doctor to rule out medical problems.
Expect changes in stool when introducing solid foods, but seek medical advice if you think your baby is constipated.
Thanks for reading! Please contact us if you have any quesitons specific to your child or family. Either reply in the comment below, or check out our contact information.
Health Canada infant feeding recommendations from 6 to 24 months
Baker RD, Greer FR. Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency and Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children (0-3 Years of Age). Pediatrics. 2010;126(5):1040–50.
Cichero JAY. Introducing solid foods using baby-led weaning vs. spoon-feeding: A focus on oral development, nutrient intake and quality of research to bring balance to the debate. Nutr Bull. 2016;41(1):72–7.
Zhao Y, Hou R, Zhu X, Ren L, Lu H. Effects of delayed cord clamping on infants after neonatal period: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International journal of nursing studies. 2019;92:97-108.