The Ultimate Guide to Iron for Babies

Iron is an important consideration for babies, especially breastfed little ones. In breastfed kids, iron stores start to run low at 4-6 months of age, and incorporating iron-rich foods is essential to stave-off deficiency. Read on to find out more about iron for babies.

Is your little one just about to start solids? Or maybe you’ve just begun to offer soft foods. Either way, iron is a nutrient you should be aware of, particularly if your baby has been breastfed up until now.

What does iron do?

Iron delivers oxygen to cell and tissues and is involved in dozens of other reactions related to energy production and DNA synthesis. Moreover, iron is critical for nervous system development in children and not getting enough of it during childhood has far-reaching consequences. Specifically, iron deficiency early in life has been linked with reduced intelligence, poor cognition, and behavioral issues [1,2]. And no parent wants that for their sweet little bundle of joy.

Plant-based high iron foods including tofu, beans, spinach, and lentils on a gray background.

Why is iron important for babies?

Full term babies are born with sufficient iron for the first 4-6 months of life. However, after 4-6 months breastfed infants are typically running low on iron because breastmilk provides very little. For this reason, incorporating high iron foods when your baby starts solids is essential for breastfed kids.

For formula fed kids, it’s a different story. Most infant formulas provide iron (double check the label). As a result, formula-fed infants usually aren’t running low at 4-6 months like breastfed babies. That said, high iron foods become increasingly important for formula-fed kids as they wean.

Recommended daily iron intake for babies

The daily recommended intake of iron set by the Institute of Medicine for infants 7-12 months is 11mg per day.

Babies born prematurely or fed a plant-based diet might need a little more.

For breastfed infants, this means incorporating high iron foods daily as they transition to solids. For formula-fed kids, incorporating high iron foods throughout the week is usually sufficient to keep iron stores topped up until they wean off formula.

Heme iron and non-heme iron

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme.

  • Heme iron: Heme iron is found in animal foods such as red meat, liver, poultry, shrimp, and pork. It’s more readily absorbed than non-heme iron. Some studies show that up to 25% of heme iron is absorbed whereas only about 10% of non-heme iron reaches circulation [3].
  • Non-heme iron: Non-heme iron is found in plant foods such as spinach, tofu, cashews, fortified cereals, beans and legumes. It’s generally less bioavailable than heme iron, largely because the presence of phytic acid – an iron inhibitor.

27 foods rich in iron for babies

Foods rich in heme iron and non-heme iron on a white background.

Foods offered to your baby should be soft, and free of added salt and sugar, and this applies to iron-rich foods. (Learn more safe foods for baby here).

Heme iron sources

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Veal
  • Bison
  • Venison
  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Shrimp
  • Chicken
  • Beef liver
  • Sardines

Non-heme iron sources

  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Smashed edamame
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard
  • Wheat germ
  • Fortified infant cereals
  • Quinoa
  • Ground flaxseeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Tahini
  • Cashew butter
  • Pumpkin seed butter
  • Sunflower seed butter

How to improve iron absorption

There are a couple of different factors that can enhance iron absorption and help your baby get sufficient iron:

  • Vitamin C increases non-heme iron absorption: Pair sources of non-heme iron with vitamin-C rich foods such as strawberries, citrus, bell peppers, broccoli and cauliflower.
  • Heme iron improves non-heme iron absorption: For example, pairing foods such as spinach and beef together improves iron uptake from spinach.
  • Sprouting non-heme iron sources makes iron more bioavailable: Iron in sprouted legumes, nuts, and seeds tends to be more bioavailable because sprouting breaks down phytic acid, an iron inhibitor.
Vitamin C rich foods such as grapefruit, bell pepper, kiwi, and tomatoes on a gray background.

Key takeaways

  • Iron is critical for nervous system development. Not getting enough iron during childhood has been linked with cognitive and behavioral issues.
  • By 4-6 months, breastfed infants are typically running low on iron and adding in high iron foods as they start solids is essential.
  • Young children are at high risk for iron deficiency, and incorporating high iron foods is also important for formula-fed children. This is especially the case as they rely more on food and less on formula for nutrition.
  • Heme iron is more bioavailable than non-heme iron.

[1] Lynch, S., Pfeiffer, C. M., Georgieff, M. K., Brittenham, G., Fairweather-Tait, S., Hurrell, R. F., McArdle, H. J., & Raiten, D. J. (2018). Biomarkers of Nutrition for Development (BOND)-Iron Review. The Journal of nutrition, 148(suppl_1), 1001S–1067S.

[2] Domellöf, M., Braegger, C., Campoy, C., Colomb, V., Decsi, T., Fewtrell, M., Hojsak, I., Mihatsch, W., Molgaard, C., Shamir, R., Turck, D., van Goudoever, J., & ESPGHAN Committee on Nutrition (2014). Iron requirements of infants and toddlers. Journal of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition, 58(1), 119–129.

[3] Moscheo, C., Licciardello, M., Samperi, P., La Spina, M., Di Cataldo, A., & Russo, G. (2022). New Insights into Iron Deficiency Anemia in Children: A Practical Review. Metabolites, 12(4), 289.

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