WHY IS IRON IMPORTANT FOR BABIES?
In babies and toddlers, iron is vital for physical and mental development. Babies have very high iron needs, because they are growing so rapidly - in the first 12 months birth weight triples.
Between birth and two years, the human brain grows to 80% of its adult size. Iron is deposited in the brain - it is part of the brain structure and is therefore an essential nutrient for mental development.
What can happen if my baby is iron deficient?
Infants who are severely iron deficient may suffer from:
- Altered behaviour
- Reduced immunity and therefore more frequent infections
- Slower development of motor skills (like balance and coordination)
- Slower language development
- Intelligence / IQ (a few points)
Research has shown that even when the iron deficiency is treated, some of these effects can be permanent.
New Zealand data shows we have a problem with iron deficiency. Some studies show up to 30% of infants are iron deficient; up to 20% have the more severe form of iron deficiency anaemia.
WHAT IRON STORES DOES MY BABY HAVE?
Providing babies are not premature, most are born with good iron stores. When combined with an infant formula or breast milk, this iron is sufficient to last 4 to 6 months. Breast-fed babies rarely lack iron. Although the iron content of breast milk is not high, this iron is very well absorbed.
By around six months of age the baby's iron stores are beginning to run out, and iron needs are increasing.
The following table gives the recommended dietary intake of iron for New Zealand infants and toddlers as outlined in the 2006 Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand.
RECOMMENDED DAILY INTATES FOR IRON
IRON PER DAY (mg)
|Infants 0-6 months
|Infants 7-12 months
Iron needs are particularly high in the six to nine months period and this is the time when solid foods are gradually introduced. It is important these early foods are good sources of iron that is easily absorbed.
HOW CAN I HELP MY BABY GET ENOUGH IRON?
To help your baby get enough iron, follow these simple guideliness:
UNDER 4 MONTHS
All baby needs is breast or formula milk. Do not give tea, cow's milk or any solids.
AROUND 6 MONTHS
Continue to breast feed or use an iron-fortified infant formula. Introduce iron-fortified baby cereal mixed with a little breast milk or formula.
AROUND 6 MONTHS
Introduce puréed vegetables: mix with a little boiled water, unsalted vegetable cooking water, breast milk or infant formula to make a smooth, soft mixture. Introduce puréed fruits.
6 - 9 MONTHS
Continue to breast feed or use an appropriate infant formula. Soon after 6 months introduce puréed lamb, liver*, kidney, beef or chicken. Mix these with moist puréed or mashed vegetables. Beef, lamb and white meats are easily digested by most six month old babies. Introduce new foods one at a time. By 8 months of age your baby should be having 2 to 3 meals a day and 3 to 4 milk feeds each day. At this stage, baby should be offered solids before the milk feed.
9 - 12 MONTHS
Progress to finely chopped foods, then to chunkier pieces (wedges, slices, strips) of vegetables, fruits and lean red meat such as beef and lamb. These meats are especially rich in easily absorbed haem iron. When cooking vegetables, use as little water as possible and do not over cook (heat destroys vitamin C). Cook foods so they are just soft enough for baby to manage.
While liver is an excellent source of iron, it is also rich in vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for health but too much can be harmful for babies. Limit liver to about three teaspoons (15 grams) a week.
WHICH ARE THE BEST SOURCES OF IRON?
Iron is found in a number of foods, including red meat. In general, the redder the meat,the higher the iron content.
But not all iron is the same. Haem iron (found in red meat, fish and poultry) is more easily absorbed, with about a quarter being used. Whereas only about 5% of non-haem iron (found in green vegetables, bread and cereals) is absorbed. Red meat can help increase the absorption of non-haem iron by up to four times. Vitamin C has a similar effect. Eating a combination of foods high in both haem and non-haem iron helps provide an iron-rich diet.
Haem Iron Food (easily absorbed)
- Liver*, kidney
- Lean beef, lamb
- Lean chicken, pork
- Fish, including canned fish
Non-Haem Iron Foods (poorly absorbed)
- Infant cereal with added iron, porridge**
- Peas, spinach, silverbeet, broccoli, cauliflower
- Dried apricots, prunes, other dried fruit, finely chopped**
- Baked beans, cooked dried beans, lentils, split peas
- Puha, taro leaves
- Wholemeal bread (avoid coarse, grainy types)
** From 8 months
COULD MY BABY BE IRON DEFICIENT?
If you can tick any of the boxes below, or are concerned about your baby’s iron level, talk to your
doctor or Plunket nurse.
- Recurrent infections
- Grumpy and irritable
- Tired and lethargic
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feels the cold
- Reduced appetite
- Reduced weight gain
- Digestive problems