Is your baby getting enough iron?

Did you know that at 7 months your baby needs more iron than their dad?!

Sadly, many New Zealand babies and toddlers just aren't getting enough; according to New Zealand research, 8 out of 10 toddlers are not meeting the recommended daily intake of dietary iron* and 14% of children under 2 are iron deficient^.

Why is iron such an important nutrient for your baby? Where is it found? And how can you ensure your baby is getting enough iron?

Iron is crucial for your baby's brain to help their learning and cognitive development. It also helps their immune system work normally, transports oxygen around the body and supports energy levels. Iron helps babies grow at a normal rate and develop physically. It is a life giving nutrient.

Milk feeds alone can provide adequate iron for the first six months of life and most full term babies are born with good iron stores. However, by around six months of age their iron stores begin to run out and milk feeds alone don’t provide enough iron for your baby because their needs sky rocket. This is one reason to begin to introduce solids at this age while still giving milk feeds - this is transition is called complementary feeding. Babies have very high iron needs because they are growing so rapidly; in the first 12 months their birth weight triples... And between birth and two years, the human brain grows to 80% of its adult size.

Severe iron deficiency in babies and toddlers may cause a range of ailments including altered behaviour, reduced immunity (and therefore more frequent infections), tiredness and lethargy, slower development of motor skills (like balance and coordination), slower language development, and reduced appetite. Ensuring your baby has a balanced diet full of iron-rich meats, vegetables and beans/legumes is one way to keep your baby's iron levels within a healthy range.

Within the first month of starting solids, or soon after, start to introduce high iron foods together with fruits and vegetables your baby has already tried. Meat, fish and poultry all contain haem iron which is more readily absorbed by the body than the iron found in plant foods (non-haem iron). This means you only need to give your child a small amount to help meet their iron needs. You may have heard of the saying “the redder the meat, the higher the iron” and this is true. Red meats (such as beef, lamb, pork and venison) have some of the highest haem iron contents in the diet.

As mentioned above, iron is also found in other foods such as spinach, beans, lentils, peas and fortified baby cereals however, the type of iron in these foods is less easily absorbed. If your family doesn’t eat meat, make sure you give your child a range of these other iron-containing foods each day. The added benefit of fruits and vegetables is the vitamin C content; vitamin C helps our body absorb the non-haem iron found in plant foods.

If you are concerned about your child’s iron levels or their eating, please get in touch with your family doctor, Plunket Nurse or Registered Nutritionist/Dietitian.
Our guide to solids covers suitable foods for each age and stage your baby will likely pass through, up to around the time they turn one, which is when they should be enjoying family foods. We highly recommend you download our e-book, Your Baby's Food Journey; easy step by step guide, to help set you and your baby on the right path of eating from the beginning. It also contains a detailed overview of how to create the perfect purée (including getting a lovely smooth texture using meat for when you first introduce solids).

*Wall, CR et al. (2008). Ethnic variance in iron status: is it related to dietary intake? Public Health Nutr 12 (9):1413-1421.
^Grant, CC et al. (2007). Population prevalence and risk factors for iron deficiency in Auckland, New Zealand. J Paediatr Child Health 43: 532-538