Iron is vital for your baby’s brain, body and immune system development. So, it pays to know what iron-rich foods to offer. Let’s iron out the facts about why this mineral is so essential, 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, your baby needs food to complement foods their milk at about six months. Iron-rich foods are of particular importance. Babies and young children need iron for brain development and for their bodies and immune systems to develop normally.
What is the role of iron in the diet?
Iron is needed to make red blood cells which carry oxygen around the body. It also plays a vital role in brain growth and brain development, in fighting infections and rapid growth. Growing babies and children who are iron deficient may become tired, faint, pale, uninterested in play, and often have a poor appetite and grow poorly. If the iron level in the body falls, your baby (iron deficient) may get iron deficiency anaemia or become ‘anaemic’.
Your GP can diagnose low iron based on blood tests looking for low iron stores (‘ferritin’), smaller red blood cells than normal (‘microcytosis’) or anaemia (low haemoglobin).
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 preterm 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 don’t run out entirely 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 breast milk contains very low iron levels compared to infant formula, the iron in human milk is much better absorbed. Up to 50% of the iron in breast milk is absorbed compared to 4% from an iron-fortified formula. This is partly due to the vitamin C and lactose in breast milk that helps with iron absorption. It’s incredible stuff!
Therefore regardless of whether you’re breastfeeding or formula feeding, you should introduce iron-rich weaning foods to your child’s diet from six months alongside milk.
You may read advice online recommending that all breastfeeding babies be supplemented with iron from four months. However, we do not recommend this in Ireland and the UK. Giving an iron supplement to all babies with iron can result in too high iron levels in some babies.
Before offering your baby, any supplement, including iron supplements, talk to your child’s doctor.
How much iron does a baby need?
Iron needs vary as your baby grows. Full-term babies aged 7-11 months need about 11mg of iron a day, the same as a grown man! How much iron your child needs from 1-6 years 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 (vitamin C!)
LEARN MORE: The Tricky Third Meal-Quick and Easy Baby Lunch Ideas
Iron-rich foods for babies and baby-led weaning
There have been concerns that babies weaned using a baby-led approach might not get the iron they need. And may lead to the baby’s iron levels being too low and leading to iron deficiency anaemia. 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 spoon-feeding and finger foods is a great way to get the best of both worlds when you introduce solid foods.
Does my baby need to eat meat to get enough iron?
Not necessarily. There are differences between iron-rich foods like meat and fish (haem or heme iron) and iron-rich foods that are plant-based like beans, fortified cereals, lentils, eggs and tofu (non-haem or nonheme iron).
Touted as some of the best iron-rich foods online, dark leafy greens like kale and spinach 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, even the best iron-rich plant-based foods are 2-3 less well absorbed than iron found in meat and fish.
On the upside, pairing non-haem (nonheme iron) iron foods with foods high in vitamin C like tomatoes, green peppers, oranges, and dark greens like broccoli makes nonheme iron more easily absorbed. Also, pairing non-haem iron with haem iron improves absorption.
Nine everyday best iron-rich foods for babies (and toddlers)
You can serve first 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 or baby-led weaning: Iron-rich recipes include 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: Try iron-rich recipes like Beef stew (use zero salt stock) or casserole, tagine, mild curry.
Finger food or baby-led weaning: A strip of well-cooked pan-cooked (as long as your baby doesn’t have teeth to pull it apart, they can 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 or baby-led weaning: Hard-boiled egg cut into slices, frittata or omelette fingers, fingers of French Toast, egg muffins, pancakes, mashed egg on fingers of toasted white or whole wheat bread.
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 or baby-led weaning: Fish cakes, flaked fish, fish mashed with yoghurt and spread on toasted white or whole wheat bread.
(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 or baby-led weaning: 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 or baby-led weaning: Soak and chop and add to pancakes and muffins.
*#7 GROUND ALMONDS
From a spoon: Add to mashed fruit (here’s your vitamin C to help iron absorption), avocado pasta sauce, sprinkle in yoghurt and porridge.
Finger food or baby-led weaning: Sprinkle on slippery finger food like kiwi (a vitamin C rich food perfect for helping baby absorb more iron), 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 or baby-led weaning: 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 or baby-led wean: Sprinkle on slippery finger food like kiwi, banana, sweet potatoes or cooked courgette. Add to muffins and pancakes. Use instead of breadcrumbs in mini burgers or to coat fish cakes.
READ MORE: Simple baby breakfast ideas that you can share
*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).
A word about milk!
Cow’s milk is not a good source of iron. Even though cow’s milk has about as much iron as human milk, it isn’t absorbed well by the body.
It’s OK to introduce a small amount of cows milk in food during weaning but wait until your baby is 12 months old before introducing it as a drink.
In the toddler years, drinking too much cow’s milk can lead to iron deficiency. Babies 12 months or older need about 600 mL of milk each day. This includes milk in food and equivalent cheese and yoghurt or alternatives. Try to introduce milk in a cup rather than in a bottle after 12 months.
READ MORE: How to switch from formula to cows milk?
What if your baby isn’t eating the iron-rich foods you’re offering?
Many parents worry that their baby isn’t eating the iron-rich foods they’re offering. Don’t freak out! It’s normal for babies to refuse some foods and their appetite and tastes fluctuate from day to day and meal-to-meal. Keep offering iron-rich foods at every meal to maximise your baby’s opportunities to eat iron-rich foods. And talk to your GP, PHN or arrange a consultation with a registered dietitian if you’re concerned.
So, as you can see, there are many simple ways to include iron-rich foods for babies so that they grow and thrive.
And why not subscribe to Solid Start and get tips on food, nutrition and feeding straight to your inbox every month?