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Giving them the best start: Iron for babies

Starting solids alongside your baby’s milk feeds (complementary feeding), can be an exciting time for parents - watching their little one’s eyes widen, hands clap and facial expressions change as they are introduced to the complete unknown. But where do you start? And what foods are important to include in their diet? Registered Dietician Katrina Dixon takes a look.


For the around the first six months of their life, babies can get all the nutrition they need from milk feeds and their own body stores of nutrients. However, by about six months their little bodies and brains are growing so rapidly that their nutrient stores significantly drop and milk feeds alone can’t provide them enough nutrition. It is around this age babies need to start eating complimentary food, alongside their milk feeds, to help with healthy growth and development.

Because babies have little tummies, every single mouthful counts when starting complementary foods. Variety is key and foods should be nutritious andof high quality to ensure their small bodies can absorb all the goodness. All vitamins and minerals are essential for babies, but iron, in particular, is extremely important for little ones, because at seven months old a baby needs more iron than their Dad for the following reasons:

  • Growth
  • Brain development
  • Supporting immunity
  • Carrying oxygen around the body
  • Energy
  • Sensory function

Alarmingly, 14% of New Zealand children under 2 years are iron deficient, and 8 out of 10 toddlers do not meet their daily recommended intake of iron, so it’s important to consider the type of iron foods they are offered. Although many foods contain iron, not all iron is equal. Haem iron foods (predominantly animal-derived foods) provide absorbable, readily available iron compared to the less well absorbed, non-haem iron foods (mostly plant-derived foods). One food that fits the iron-rich bill is lean red meat. Lean red meat, such as New Zealand grass-fed beef and lamb, is a nutritional powerhouse packed full of essential nutrients such as good quality protein, iron, zinc, phosphorus and B vitamins. When paired with vegetables and carbohydrates, other nutrients are brought to the table that lean red meat cannot provide (e.g. vitamin C and fibre) which makes for a balanced and nourishing meal. Here are two of our favourite, family-friendly recipes that tick the boxes of being delicious, packed full of nutrition, and easily adapted to be smooth, chopped, mashed, or the same as the family are enjoying:

Learn more

To learn more about the stages of complementary feeding, as well as the nutritional needs of growing healthy babies and toddlers, click here.

For more information on the importance of iron and fuelling your baby or toddler, check out our Fuelled by Iron resource.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much food does my baby need?

Babies are good at knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. When first introducing solids try ½ - 2 teaspoons at a time and slowly increase the amount you give your baby. Every baby is unique; some days they will eat more than other days. Offer small amounts of nutritious foods each day and trust your baby to decide how much they eat. A happy, contented baby, growing well is the best sign your baby is getting all the nutrients they need. For more information on the importance of iron and fuelling your baby or toddler, check out our Fuelled by Iron resource.

Could my baby/toddler be iron deficient?

If you can tick any of the boxes below or are concerned about your baby’s or toddler’s iron levels talk to your doctor or Plunket nurse:

  • Recurrent infections
  • Grumpy and irritable
  • Tired and lethargic
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Pale
  • Feels the cold
  • Reduced appetite
  • Reduced weight gain
  • Digestive problems

Can my baby meet their nutritional requirements on a vegan or vegetarian diet?

Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets (inclusive of supplementation) have been shown to support normal growth and development in babies and toddlers. Parents are advised to seek professional medical advice from a GP. Additional advice from a Registered Dietitian or Registered Nutritionist may also be of value to assist with meal planning.

How can I feed my fussy child?

Fussy eating is a common issue that many parents face. For tips and tricks on how to help a fussy eater click here. If fussy eating persists contact your GP.

What is better: baby-led weaning or the traditional spoon-fed method?

Baby-led weaning is a relatively new researched area that sees a baby of at least six months of age feed themselves (rather than be traditionally spoon-fed). There are pros and cons to baby-led weaning, however as this an evolving area of research the current Ministry of Health’s position statement does not recommend it at a population level.

Posted by Katrina Dixon

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