Iron is vital for your baby’s brain, body and immune system development. So, it pays to know what iron-rich foods to offer your baby. Let’s iron out the facts about why iron is so important, how to make sure your baby gets enough and find nine iron-rich foods for babies you probably already have lurking in your kitchen!
Why do babies need to eat foods high in iron?
You might have heard the catchy rhyme ‘food before one is just for fun. And while food should certainly be fun, at about six months, your baby needs food to complement foods their milk. Iron-rich foods are of particular importance. Babies and young children need iron for their brains, bodies and immune systems to develop normally.
Do iron stores ‘run out’ at six months on the dot?
Your baby is born with enough iron stores to last until about six months of age. The iron level your baby is born with depends on three factors:
- Mum’s iron levels during pregnancy.
- Whether your baby is born full-term or preterm, most of your baby’s iron stores build in the final trimester, so early babies miss out.
- Whether or not you had delayed cord clamping. Delayed cord clamping provides extra blood and, therefore, iron to your baby.
But, don’t stress! Iron stores doesn’t run out completely once your baby hits six months of age. However, after six months of age, it’s important to include other foods alongside breastmilk or infant formula.
Are breastfed babies more at risk of iron-deficiency than formula-fed babies?
No. Although breastmilk contains very low levels of iron compared to infant formula the iron in human milk is much better absorbed. Up to 50% of the iron in breastmilk is absorbed compared to 4% absorption from infant formula. This is partly due to the vitamin C and lactose in breastmilk that helps with iron absorption. It’s amazing stuff!
Therefore regardless of whether you’re breastfeeding or formula feeding you should introduce iron-rich weaning foods from six months alongside milk.
You may read advice online recommending that all breastfeeding babies should be supplemented with iron from four months. However, we do not recommend this in Ireland and the UK. Supplementing all babies with iron can result in too high iron levels in some babies.
How much iron does a baby need?
Babies aged 7-11 months need about 11mg of iron a day, the same as a grown man! From 1-6 years, this decreases slightly to 7mg per day. No busy mum has the time to tot up how many milligrams of iron their baby eats, so let’s make this as simple as possible!
How can I include enough iron-rich foods for my baby every day?
The easiest way to ensure that your baby gets enough iron is to offer iron-rich foods at every meal.
I like to use this rule of thumb when planning meals for babies (and toddlers).
Choose an iron-rich food, pick a portion of food for energy and then add a fruit or vegetable.
Iron-rich foods for babies and baby-led weaning
There have been concerns that babies who are weaned using a baby-led approach might not get the iron they need. One reason for this concern is that parents aren’t as likely to offer baby-led weaners iron-fortified cereals and may offer more vegetables and fruit than meat initially.
However, one randomised control trial has shown that “a baby-led approach to complementary feeding doesn’t appear to increase the risk of iron deficiency in infants when their parents are advised to offer ‘high-iron foods with each meal”.
Also, don’t forget that taking a flexible approach to weaning that combines both spoon-feeding and finger foods is a great way to get the best of both worlds.
Does my baby need to eat meat to get enough iron?
Not necessarily. There are differences between iron in meat and fish (haem iron) and iron in plant-based foods like beans, fortified cereals, lentils, eggs and tofu (non-haem iron).
Vegetables like kale and spinach touted as excellent sources of iron online don’t live up to their high iron reputation. A baby would need to eat 120g spinach to get only 2mg of iron, and that’s much more spinach than your baby will eat in a mini muffin! On top of this, iron found in plant-based foods is 2-3 less well absorbed than iron found in meat and fish.
On the upside, pairing non-haem iron foods with foods high in vitamin C like tomatoes, peppers, oranges, and broccoli will help your baby absorb a little more. Also, pairing non-haem iron with haem iron improves absorption.
Nine everyday iron-rich foods for babies (and toddlers)
You can serve foods high in iron either as a high iron purée (or mash) or as high iron finger foods for baby-led weaning. There’s an option here for every baby and family so, there’s no excuse not to serve your baby iron-rich food at every meal.
#1 STEAK MINCE
From a spoon: Bolognese, Shepherd’s Pie, Mild chilli con Carne
Finger food: Meatballs, mini burgers, meat sauce with well-cooked fusilli pasta
Don’t feel that you need to make special baby recipes. You can easily adapt your meals to make them suitable for your baby.
READ MORE: Salt for babies- A Guide for weaning
From a spoon: Beef stew (use zero salt stock) or casserole, tagine, mild curry
Finger food: A strip of well-cooked pan-cooked (as long as your baby doesn’t have teeth to pull it apart, they can just suck out the iron-rich juice. However, once they can tear off a piece, you’ll need to cut into tiny pieces), steak, slow-cooked shredded beef.
Red meat is the best and most easily absorbable type of iron
From a spoon: Mashed boiled egg with avocado or yoghurt, scrambled egg
Finger food: Hard-boiled egg cut into slices, frittata or omelette fingers, fingers of French Toast, egg muffins, pancakes, mashed egg on toast fingers
LEARN MORE: Eggs for kids-How, what and when
#4 SALMON (FRESH OR TINNED) OR TINNED TUNA
From a spoon: Mashed with potato, cooked vegetables, yoghurt or avocado, fish pie
Finger food: Fish cakes, flaked fish, fish mashed with yoghurt and spread on toast fingers
( Don’t offer your baby tinned tuna more than once per week and don’t offer fresh tuna at all)
*#5 TINNED CHICKPEAS OR KIDNEY BEANS
From a spoon: In soups, curries, casseroles, stews
Finger food: Hummus spread on toast fingers or cooked veggie sticks, squashed kidney beans, falafel, baby bean burgers
*#6 DRIED APRICOTS
From a spoon: Cooked into porridge, soaked and mashed and added to yoghurt
Finger food: Soak and chop and add to pancakes and muffins
*#7 GROUND ALMONDS
From a spoon: Add to mashed fruit, avocado pasta sauce, sprinkle in yoghurt and porridge.
Finger food: Sprinkle on slippery finger food like kiwi, banana or cooked courgette. Add to muffins and pancakes.
*#8 SMOOTH PEANUT BUTTER
From a spoon: Add to porridge, yoghurt and mashed fruit or veggies
Finger food: Spread (thinly) on toast fingers, sweet potato sticks or banana. Or add to pancakes and muffins.
*#9 IRON FORTIFIED BABY CEREAL (READY BREK AND WEETABIX ARE PERFECT!)
From a spoon: You know what to do!
Finger food: Sprinkle on slippery finger food like kiwi, banana or cooked courgette. Add to muffins and pancakes. Use instead of breadcrumbs in mini burgers or to coat fish cakes.
*these plant-based sources of iron are harder to absorb. Make sure you combine these with either haem-iron (e.g. dried apricots in a beef tagine) or a good vitamin C source (e.g. Ready Brek with a slice of orange).
So, as you can see, there are many simple ways to include iron-rich foods for babies so that they grow and thrive.
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