This blog was written by Ashley Turner, a dietetic intern.

You might have heard from your public health nurse that you should start introducing solids, specifically iron rich foods, to your baby. I’m sure you’ve heard of iron before and know it is important. This blog will answer your questions about iron, why it’s important to your baby, and how to include iron-rich foods for your child day to day. 

Why is iron important for my child?

 Iron is an essential nutrient (your body does not make it) needed for normal brain development and for the immune system to work well. Iron helps transport oxygen throughout the body and is used to make red blood cells. Most healthy babies are born with enough iron stores to last them up to about 6 months of age. As you start to introduce solid foods to your baby, iron-rich foods should be top priority.

Breast milk or formula is the only food babies need until around 6 months of age, iron in breast milk is very well absorbed and there is enough iron in formula to meet baby’s needs. At 6 months of age, solid foods can start to be introduced but continuing to offer breast milk until your baby is 2 years or older is encouraged. Babies being formula fed can continue a store-bought formula until they are 9 to 12 months of age and are eating a variety of iron-rich foods.

What if my child does not get enough iron?

Babies, toddlers, and children can become iron deficient if they do not get enough iron from the foods they eat. Iron deficiency anemia is when you don’t have enough red blood cells to carry oxygen through the body to your organs and muscles. Symptoms of anemia may cause your child:

  • To not want to eat
  • Get sick more often
  • Be weak or fatigued
  • Have paleness, dizziness or light-headedness
  • Have shortness of breath and chest pain

Anemia can also slow down normal development of your child’s brain. Poor attention span, trouble concentrating, social withdrawal can be long term effects of iron deficiency anemia.

What if we are vegetarian? Is iron only in animal foods?

People often think iron only comes from meat sources, however there are many plant-based options that also provide iron. There are two types of iron heme iron and non-heme iron.

Heme iron is found in meat, poultry, and fish, and is more easily absorbed by the body.

Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods (legumes, fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, and iron-fortified grain products) and animal-based foods (eggs, meat, poultry, and fish), and is not absorbed as well by the body. This doesn’t mean you can’t meet your iron needs with non-heme iron sources though!

To help increase absorption of non-heme iron, include foods with heme iron sources (meat, poultry, fish) or foods high in vitamin C (oranges, strawberries, cantaloupe, grapefruit, kiwi, mango, raspberries, tomatoes, broccoli, red and yellow peppers).

How much iron does my child need?

The RDA (recommended daily allowance) for iron is the daily iron intake level which is enough to meet the needs of almost all healthy individuals in a life stage.

Age of Child Recommended Daily Allowance for Iron
7-12 months 11 mg/day
1-3 years 7 mg/day
4-8 years 10 mg/day

Dietary Reference Intake for Iron (2001)

Children who are vegetarian may need more iron because iron in plant foods is not as well absorbed as iron in animal foods (see non-heme iron sources below).

How much iron is in foods?

 

Food Sources of Heme Iron Serving Size Amount of Iron
Wild Duck, Goose 30 g 2-3 mg
Moose 30 g 2-3 mg
Oysters, Mussels 30 g 2-3 mg
Beef 30 g 1 mg
Bison, Elk, Venison 30 g 1 mg
Canned Clams, Sardines 30 g 1 mg
Chicken 30 g 1 mg
Turkey 30 g 1 mg
Pork 30 g 0.5 mg
Lamb 30 g 0.5 mg
Light Canned Tuna 30 g 0.5 mg
Cooked Salmon 30 g 0.5 mg

 

Food Sources of Non-Heme Iron Serving Size Amount of Iron
Iron Enriched Dry Baby Cereal 2 tbsp (30 mL) 2-3 mg
Enriched Cold Cereal 2 tbsp (30 mL) 2-3 mg
Cooked Lentils, Soybeans ¼ cup (60 mL) 2-3 mg
Cooked Spinach ¼ cup (60 mL) 2-3 mg
Canned Beets ¼ cup (60 mL) 1 mg
Boiled Chard, Lima Beans ¼ cup (60mL) 1 mg
Hemp Hearts 1 tbsp (15mL) 1 mg
Ground Chia Seeds 1 tbsp (15 mL) 1 mg
Ground Flax Seeds 2 tbsp (30 mL) 1 mg
Dried Apricot 2 tbsp (30 mL) 1 mg
Potato with Skin ½ medium potato 1 mg
Cooked Canned Pumpkin ¼ cup (60 mL) 1 mg
Cooked Red Kidney Beans, Chickpeas ¼ cup (60 mL) 1 mg
Cooked Firm Tofu ¼ cup (60 mL 1 mg
Wheat Germ 2 tbsp (30 mL) 1 mg
Egg 1 egg 0.5 mg
Almond, Cashew, Peanut, or Sunflower Seed Butter 2 tbsp (30 mL) 0.5 mg
Raisins 2 tbsp (30 mL) 0.5 mg
Cooked Green Peas, Split Peas ¼ cup (60 mL) 0.5 mg
Cooked Oatmeal ¼ cup (60 mL) 0.5 mg
Cooked Quinoa, Pasta ¼ cup (60 mL) 0.5 mg

What about cow’s milk?

Cow’s milk is not a good source of iron. Whole 3.25% cow’s milk can be introduced at 9 to 12 months when baby is eating a variety of iron rich foods. It is important to ensure baby does not fill up on liquids and has room for iron-rich foods.

What are some tips for increasing iron intake?

 Include sources of iron at every meal 

  • Include a source of vitamin C when serving sources of iron
  • Increase the iron in your baby’s meal by cooking food in a cast-iron pan, this safely adds additional iron to the foods you cook
  • Add iron-fortified infant cereals to yogurt, homemade muffins, pancakes or pasta sauces
  • Limit your child’s juice intake, children do not need juice and can fill up on juice leaving less room for iron-rich foods

What are meal ideas to help meet my child’s daily requirements for iron

 

  6-9 months baby-led weaning 9+ months baby-led weaning
Meal 1

Pancakes made with eggs and bananas

topped with strawberries

Lentil Patties

Melon slices rolled in iron-fortified infant cereal or flaxseed

French toast fingers with butter topped with berries

 

Toast with peanut butter and orange slices Scrambled eggs with cheese, buttered toast, cantaloupe slices Iron-fortified toddler cereal with milk and berries
Meal 2 Spaghetti with tomato and meat sauce Tofu stir fry with steamed carrot sticks and broccoli Baby beef burgers with sweet potato chips Beef, vegetable, pasta and bean soup Peanut butter and banana sandwich with grated carrots Avocado and poached egg on toast with apple slices
Meal 3 Vegetarian chili made with red kidney beans, served with mashed potato (skin on) Beef and veggie stew with bun Salmon with roasted vegetables and pasta
6 months (pureed, smooth foods)

7-8 months

(mashed, minced, grated, finely chopped, table and finger foods

9-12 months

(table and finger foods)

Meal 1 Iron-fortified cereal with pureed strawberries Chia seeds or hemp hearts mixed w/ full fat plain yogurt and pureed berries Iron-fortified cereal with diced mango

French toast fingers topped with berries

 

Pancakes made with eggs and bananas topped with strawberries Toast with peanut butter and orange slices
Meal 2 Minced or pureed beef, pureed carrots and unsweet applesauce Minced or pureed chicken, pureed carrots and broccoli Scrambled eggs, whole grain toast strips, and orange slices Vegetarian chili made with red kidney beans, served with mashed potato (skin on) Spaghetti and tomato sauce with ground beef and broccoli Stir fried chicken and broccoli with rice
Meal 3 Ground meat mixed with baked beans and baked potato and asparagus Salmon with roasted vegetables and pasta

What are snack ideas for my child that include iron?

  •  Kiwi or mango rolled in iron-fortified infant cereal, flaxseed, hemp hearts, or chia seeds
  • Full fat plain yogurt or unsalted cottage cheese with strawberries or raspberries, and infant cereal, flaxseed, hemp hearts, or chia seeds
  • Toast with peanut butter (or other nut butter) and slices of oranges or grapefruit
  • Pieces of cantaloupe or mango dipped in peanut butter (or other nut butter)
  • Hard cooked egg and sliced tomatoes, broccoli, or red and yellow peppers
  • Iron fortified cereal with breastmilk, formula, or 3.25% whole cow’s milk

 Are there concerns for iron intake when baby-led weaning?

 One of the risks of baby-led weaning is low iron intake, as parents often don’t offer iron-rich finger foods and don’t serve iron-fortified cereal. Tips to getting enough iron with baby-led weaning are very similar to regular tips to get enough iron. 

  1. Offer a source of iron at each meal
  2. Include a source of vitamin C at each meal
  3. Add iron fortified infant cereal to recipes
  4. Make snacks count, including sources of iron at snack time
  5. Cook with cast-iron pans which safely add extra iron to dishes

Reference: Jennifer House, RD Tips from The Parent’s Guide to Baby-Led Weaning (2017)

Can my child have too much iron?

The likelihood of your child eating too much iron is small. For example your child would need to eat 10 cups of red kidney beans or chickpeas to exceed iron intake for the day. Children aged 0-13 years should not consume more than the upper limit of 40 mg per day of iron, unless recommended by their physician. Children and youth should not take iron supplements unless recommended by a physician.

If you are concerned about ensuring iron intake for your child or want to discuss how to incorporate iron rich foods when starting solids, consider meeting with one of the Registered Dietitians at Calgary Family Nutrition.