Do babies need iron supplements?

For their first 6 months of life, babies only need breast milk or formula to provide them with nutrients. Somewhere between 4 and 6 months old, however, babies start to signal that they’re ready to try solid foods. This is because around 6 months old, the stores of iron that babies are born with start to get low, and they start to need to fill in the gap with nutrients from food. The kinds of foods that parents choose to feed babies depend on a few factors, and one of the more important ones is the baby’s nutritional needs.

The importance of iron

Very few babies are iron deficient during their first 6 months, because babies are born with enough iron stored in their bodies to last them for about that long. Those who might experience iron deficiencies before 6 months include premature babies, babies whose mothers had iron-deficient anemia during pregnancy, or babies who were born at a low birth weight. However, no matter what iron level babies are born with, this reserve decreases over time and soon babies start to need to get iron from their diet. Breastfed babies especially tend to need iron supplementation earlier than babies who are formula-fed, because formula is often enriched with iron.

Introducing iron-rich solids

Iron is an important nutrient to introduce to babies at 6 months old. The age when babies are ready to start to try solid foods varies, but usually happens around this time. Once a baby shows clear signs of readiness to eat solids, these foods can be used to complement – not replace – breast milk or formula until 12 months old or beyond. Choosing iron-rich foods to introduce to your baby is a great way to help them get the iron they need when they are older than 6 months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following amounts for iron intake:

  • Breastfed babies between the ages of 6 months and 12 months should receive 1 mg per kg of body weight per day of a liquid iron supplement every day until they start eating solid foods
  • Formula-fed infants of this age don’t need iron supplementation, but at around 6 months when they start eating solids, they should be fed foods that are rich in iron
  • Children between the ages of 6 and 12 months should get 11 mg of iron each day
  • Children between the ages of 1 and 3 years old should get 7 mg of iron each day
  • Children between the ages of 4 and 8 should get 10 mg of iron each day

Examples of iron-rich foods

It’s best if some of the very first solid foods a baby eats contain iron. Here are some good first iron-rich foods to introduce to a child who still gets the majority of their calories from breast milk or formula.

  • Legumes: Some particularly iron-rich legumes include cooked pinto beans, lima beans, kidney beans, and lentils
  • Meat: Examples of meats that contain high amounts of iron are beef, chicken, turkey, duck, and shrimp
  • Vegetables: Vegetables that are particularly iron-rich include spinach, green beans, swiss chard, green peas, and sweet potatoes
  • Iron-fortified baby cereals: Look for plain baby cereals like oatmeal or rice cereal, and cereals without any added sugar, salt, fruits, milk, or yogurt solids. Baby cereals with dairy products are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than ones without them, and cereals with added salt or sugar, including sugars from fruits, are less healthy. Since iron-fortified cereal doesn’t provide much nutritional value besides iron, many providers recommend replacing cereal with other iron-rich early foods.

How vitamin C helps iron

Vitamin C helps the body better absorb iron, so your baby will benefit from trying solid foods that also have vitamin C. Some fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C include berries, broccoli, cabbage, apples, bananas, and peaches.

Talking to your baby’s provider about iron

Eating solids is a big step in baby development, and it’s not always an easy process. Most parents face some challenges as they try to teach their babies how to eat adult food, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually. Every child has unique nutritional needs, so before you begin supplementing breastmilk or formula with iron, make sure to get confirmation from your baby’s provider. He or she can tell you exactly how much iron your baby needs to get from their changing diet.

  • Deborah Johnson. “First AAP recommendations on iron supplementation include directive on universal screening.” AAPublications. American Academy of Pediatrics, Oct 5 2010. Web.
  • Robert D. Baker, Frank R. Greer, and the Committee on Nutrition. “Clinical Report—Diagnosis and Prevention of Iron Deficiency and Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Infants and Young Children (0 –3 Years of Age).” Pediatrics. 126(5). Web. Nov 2010.
  • “Working Together: Breastfeeding and Solid Foods.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, Nov 21 2015. Web.
  • Kathleen G. Auerbach, Anne Montgomery. “Supplementing the Breastfeeding Baby.” LLLI. La Leche League International, Oct 14 2007. Web.
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