Babies grow remarkably fast. We typically think of their growth as weighing more on the doctors scale, or when we have to buy bigger clothes every month. But we do not always focus on the details — the growth of their brain, muscles, and everything in between. To keep up, babies need a consistent supply of fat, protein, and many other important nutrients. Let’s chat about one of the most crucial nutrients: Iron.
What is iron? Why is it important?
Iron is a nutrient that the body uses to carry oxygen to all parts of the body, including the brain and muscles. Babies and toddlers who don’t get enough iron can often have poor appetite (sometimes it’s confused with picky eating) and may be more irritable. (1) They can also have slow weight gain.
Start thinking about iron around 6 months of age
In the first 4 to 6 months of life, babies usually get enough iron from breast milk and/or iron-fortified formula. They also have iron stored up in their bodies from pregnancy. But around 6 months of age—as your baby grows and makes more blood to carry nutrients to every part of the body—these iron stores start depleting.
This doesn’t happen instantly, so no need to worry. However, as we slowly decrease the amount of breastmilk or formula, it’s essential that babies start getting enough iron from their food.
Here’s how much iron kids should get per day, according to the National Institutes of Health:
- 0-6 months of age needs 0.27mg
- 7-12 months of age needs 11mg
- 1-3 years of age needs 7mg
As you can see, the recommended daily intake jumps dramatically around 7 months, when the iron stores babies are born with, starts to diminish.
It’s important to know that these requirements are meant for kids who get iron from both plant and animal sources. Older babies and toddlers whose dietary iron comes only from plant sources (more about that next) have a higher daily iron requirement, approximately 80% more. (2)
What foods are high in iron?
Pediatricians and dietitians recommend that a variety of foods rich in iron be among the first foods a baby eats, and ideally be offered daily as they get older. By offering different sources of iron, your baby will learn to enjoy many different tastes and textures. Also, iron is not the same in every food. It comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Heme iron, which our bodies absorb and use easily, is found in meat, poultry, and fish. Non-heme is found in beans, vegetables, soy, and iron-fortified foods, and it isn’t absorbed quite as easily.
Here’s a list of some iron-rich foods:
- Chicken and turkey
- Squash seeds
- Green beans
- Iron-fortified cereal
- Other iron-fortified foods (flip the package for Nutrition Facts label)
Plant-based sources: How to get maximum benefit
It’s fairly well known that vitamin C can improve the body’s absorption of iron from plant-based foods. And it’s true. The key is to make sure the source of vitamin C is eaten at the same time. (3)
When you give your little one beans, spinach, chickpeas, tofu and other sources of plant-based iron, consider offering these foods rich in vitamin C alongside them:
- Citrus fruit
- Red pepper
Want to unlock the goodness of plant-based iron even more? Here’s a little-known fact: Heme-iron (the form found in beef, chicken, turkey, and fish) also helps the body absorb plant-based iron. (3)
So, to help your little one get maximum iron from food, mix it up! Here are a few examples of easy meals:
- Pasta sauce made with tomato sauce, spinach and beef
- Soft shredded chicken pieces dipped in lemon chickpea hummus.
- Baked white fish with white bean puree and soft-cooked red pepper slices
(Textures can be personalized depending on how you feed your baby.)
Because of its ability to carry oxygen, iron is as essential to growth as breathing is to life. It is important to get a wide range of the nutrients needed for optimal brain development, during the key windows of their first few years. Want an easy way to ensure your little one is regularly meeting their nutrient requirements? Try our Cerebelly pouches! Formulated with 16 key brain-supporting nutrients, organic whole non-GMO ingredients, and conveniently delivered to your door, it’s a yes-brainer for busy parents and growing minds!
- Canadian Pediatric Society. Iron needs of babies and children.
Paediatr Child Health. 2007
- National Institutes of Health on Iron.
National Institutes of Health
- Hurrell R. et al. Iron bioavailability and dietary reference values.
Am J Clin Nutr. 2010