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Getting enough iron

Iron is an important mineral. Its main role is as a transporter of oxygen around the body as haemoglobin in red blood cells and myoglobin in muscle. Without enough iron the body is unable to move oxygen around to meet the body’s needs – this can lead to iron deficiency anaemia causing paleness, fatigue and breathlessness as the bodies organs and muscles don’t get enough oxygen. In children iron deficiency anaemia can also affect mental and motor development so it is important that iron intake at this age is sufficient.

From 0-3 months

A baby’s requirement for iron is relatively low (1.7 mg/day RNI) and is assumed to be met fully by iron stores obtained during pregnancy and via breast milk or fortified formula milk. Breast milk is assumed to contain enough iron to meet a baby’s needs as it takes iron from the mother to maintain this level – however if women have a low iron intake before pregnancy a supplement may be recommended at this point to ensure milk supple does not suffer (especially if diagnosed with anaemia during pregnancy).

At around 4-6 months

The iron stored by the baby starts to decline, at the same time as their requirements increase to 4.3 mg/day. This is a key factor which prompts the decision to start weaning, so that babies do not become deficient in iron.

7-12 months

An infant’s requirements increase again to 7.8 mg/day therefore it is important that weaning is not unduly delayed.

Weaning

The weaning diet should contain adequate dietary sources of iron to supplement that provided by milk. A good iron intake can be achieve through a healthy balanced diet and their usual milk, however, if babies have a poor weaning diet or do not take to food easily then ‘follow on’ or ‘toddler’ milks can provide an useful source of iron.

Iron has two dietary forms, haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in meat and meat products and this is the form that is most easily absorbed. Non-haem iron is found in fortified cereals and breads, green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and pulses. It is less well absorbed by the body as it can be ‘bound’ by dietary components including tannins (in tea) and phytates (in whole grains and beans); however absorption can be improved by vitamin c (e.g. in orange juice).

For a weaning diet, meat & fish, green vegetables and beans can be introduced safely before six months. After this white bread and other pulses can be introduced. These foods provide some of the best iron sources for young babies and toddlers, as well as providing other important vitamins, minerals and textures!

HiPP Nutritionist Helen discusses parental concerns about having enough iron in the weaning diet



Vegetarian diets

For babies that are weaned onto a vegetarian diet, it is important to make sure parents include 2-3 protein portions per day and include plenty of fruit & vegetables to ensure adequate vitamin C for iron absorption, avoiding too many whole grain foods (which aren’t suitable for young babies anyway).