Did you know iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world? Find out more about iron and how to make sure your little one is getting enough of this important mineral.
What is iron and why is it important?
Micronutrients (also known as vitamins and minerals) are only needed in small amounts but play an important role in the healthy development and well-being of babies and young children.
Iron is one of these important dietary minerals that the body needs in order to function properly – some of the vital areas that need iron include:
- Transporting oxygen around the body
- Providing energy
- Healthy brain development
- Supporting the immune system and may aid in fighting infections.
There are two types of iron found in foods:
- Haem which is found in animal foods such as meat, poultry and fish – this form of iron is more easily absorbed by the body
- Non-haem is found in plant foods such as grains and vegetables and animal foods – this form of iron is less easily absorbed by the body.
How do you know if your baby is iron deficient?
Babies and young children are at risk of becoming iron deficient (not having enough iron) because of the high levels needed during their periods of rapid growth.
Babies may have low iron levels for some of the following reasons:
- A low birth weight or premature birth – your baby has not been able to store away enough iron during pregnancy to meet the increased iron demands of their rapid growth during their first 6 months
- Introducing your baby to solid foods too late – the iron stores built-up by your baby begin to fall to low levels at around 6 months after their birth
- Not including enough iron-rich foods in their diet
- Offering cow’s milk as their main milk drink when they are under a year old – cow’s milk contains only low amounts of iron
- Your baby has a vegetarian or vegan diet – it’s harder for the body to absorb non-haem iron from plant based foods
- Your baby may have a gastrointestinal condition that prevents iron being absorbed from their food e.g. coeliac disease.
Some of the signs and symptoms of a possible iron deficiency to look out for include:
- Reduced appetite
- Increased sweating
- More infections
- Faltered growth.
What can you do to help prevent iron deficiency?
It is important to make sure you introduce iron-rich foods into your baby’s diet at around 6 months of age. When starting your baby on solids, foods such as pureed meat, chicken, fish, cooked tofu, legumes and fortified breakfast cereals are all good sources of iron.
Iron rich foods still need to be included in meals as your baby grows older. The recommended dietary intake of iron for older babies and young children are:
- 7 – 12 months: 11 mg per day
- 1 – 3 years: 9 mg per day
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron – so you can help increase the amount of iron your baby absorbs from their food by offering them foods containing vitamin C at the same time. Food such as oranges, berries, kiwifruit, tomatoes, capsicum and broccoli are all rich in vitamin C.
Don’t let cow’s milk (or other drinks) replace iron-rich foods in your baby’s diet. Cow’s milk should not become their main milk drink until after they are 12 months old.
Quick summary of do’s and don’ts of iron deficiency
- Do introduce iron-rich foods in your baby’s diet from around 6 months of age
- Do offer foods containing vitamin C at the same time as iron-rich foods
- Do talk to your doctor if you have any iron deficiency concerns – they can exclude other illnesses and offer the appropriate guidance
- Don’t leave the introduction of solid foods too late after 6 months
- Don’t give your baby iron supplements unless advised by your doctor – iron can be toxic if given in large amounts
If you’re concerned that your baby may be iron deficient it is important that you talk to your doctor, maternal health nurse or other healthcare professional to confirm your suspicions – there may be other possible illnesses that have similar symptoms.