If you are just starting solids, you may have heard that iron is a crucial nutrient for your baby. Or you may have had an iron test done and realized your child’s iron stores are a little low. Either way, you may be looking for iron foods to include in your child’s diet. Luckily there are a lot!
If you are just looking for a printable version, check out my Nutrient Guide! It has information on iron as well as some other common nutrients of concern for children.
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What does iron do?
Iron has several uses throughout the body, but its main purpose is helping transport oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body (1). It is used to make hemoglobin, which is what you will often see in a blood test.
Iron is also used in the creation of myoglobin, which helps with muscle metabolism and supports healthy tissues. It’s also used for physical growth, neurological development, and in the creation of some hormones. Obviously, these are all things that are very important for children’s development!
Types of Iron
There are 2 types of iron: heme and non-heme. While there are some differences between the 2, the main goal as a parent is to offer iron sources throughout the day. In the US, our recommendations of intakes are based on having an intake of both heme and non-heme iron.
This type of iron comes from animal products. It is better absorbed than non-heme iron, however there are a lot of factors that affect iron absorption.
Non-heme iron is in plant foods, fortified foods, and makes up some of the iron in animal products as well. It is not as easily absorbed as heme iron, but there are strategies you can use to help increase absorption, like pairing foods with a source of vitamin C.
I generally do not recommend closely monitoring iron intake. My goal is to decrease stress and trying to estimate your child’s intake of anything will undoubtedly increase yours. However, I know it can be helpful to have ballpark ranges. You can use this information to look at food labels and determine if a food is a good iron source.
|Age||Recommended Intake in the US|
|0-6 months||0.27 mg|
|7-12 months||11 mg|
|1-3 years||7 mg|
|4-8 years||10 mg|
The recommended intake for 0-6 months is based on the intake of breastfed infants. The iron is breastmilk is very well absorbed. The intake in formula may look different.
These recommendations are based on an omnivorous diet. If you or your child is following a plant-based diet, the recommendations are to increase the recommended amounts by 1.8x. That being said, in Europe, the iron recommendations are different, ranging from as low as 4 mg/day to as high as 15 mg/day (3). This is why I wouldn’t get too fixated on the numbers and instead focus on offering iron containing foods regularly.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
Infants tend to have adequate iron stores to last them through the first 4-6 months of life, however premature infants may need additional iron sooner. When starting solids, it’s important to incorporate an iron source to help rebuild iron stores.
Another group of children at higher risk for iron deficiency anemia are those who drink excessive amounts of milk. Calcium can inhibit the absorption of iron (remember I said it was complicated?) and if a child is getting too much dairy, it can make it difficult for a couple of reasons. First, they are probably getting a lot of calcium. Second, they may not have room in their stomach for iron-containing foods due to all the milk. For toddlers, we recommend no more than 16 ounces of milk per day to help prevent this.
The last group of children at risk for iron deficiency anemia are those with bleeding or absorptive disorders. This group is less common.
Signs of Anemia
- pale skin
- GI problems
- sleep disturbances
- cravings for non-food items or ice
Increasing Iron Intake
Besides the obvious (eat more iron-containing foods), there are a few strategies to implement that can help either increase absorption of iron or increase the total iron content of foods.
- Pair iron containing foods with vitamin C. Vitamin C can help increase the absorption of non-heme iron. While this is the primary form of iron in plant foods, there is some non-heme iron in animal sources as well, so it never hurts to add a vitamin C containing food to the meal (which is why it’s a key component in my balanced plate).
- Cook in cast iron. While the amount of iron that can leach out of the cast iron is debated, some iron will be leached into the cooking, without affecting the flavor (4).
- Use an iron fish (affiliate link). Similar to the cast iron, you can use the iron fish in cooking. Some of the iron will leach out into the food without affecting the flavor.
- Choosing to eat heme iron with non-heme iron may help increase the absorption of the non-heme iron.
- Avoid taking a calcium supplement with meals containing iron. Calcium can inhibit iron absorption. Limit your child’s milk intake to recommended amounts. For children 1-3, that’s about 16-24 ounces/day depending on how many other dairy products they eat.
- While caffeine is not recommended for children anyway, coffee and tea can inhibit iron absorption and should be avoided at meals with iron to help with intake.
Iron Rich Foods for Baby Led Weaning
- Almond butter
- Breakfast cereal (fortified)
- Green peas
- Pasta (enriched wheat or bean)
- Pumpkin Seeds
If you are feeling overwhelmed with starting solids, definitely check out my Starting Solids Course! It’s designed to give you everything you need to know to introduce solids safely and confidently. If you’re just looking for a printable version of this list with some other nutrients, check out my Nutrients of Concern Guide. It focuses on the main nutrients we worry about with young kids.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.