Iron – how to make sure your child eats enough

Did you know there are two types of iron in our food? So which one is best for your little one and what are the best ways of getting it?

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How much iron does your baby and child need?

According to the Department of Health, your little one needs the following levels of iron in her diet each day:

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  • 0-3 months 1.7mg
  • 4-6 months 4.3mg
  • 7-12 months 7.8mg
  • 1-3 years 6.9mg
  • 4-8 yrs 10 mg/day

Why do we need iron?

Iron is a vital element that helps to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen round the body. A lack of iron can lead to anaemia – a condition that can make your baby tired, listless and pale.

When do babies need iron?

Up until 6 months, babies have a store of iron, but after this time, your baby will need additional iron in her diet. This means that if you start weaning at 6 months, you should move fairly swiftly from smooth to lumpy purees, so that you can start introducing meat by 7 months.

You need to make sure you’re giving her enough milk too, as she may start with only small amounts of food. Breastmilk will provide her with some iron as will iron-fortified follow-on formula milk.

Cows’ milk does not contain enough iron for babies and is not suitable as a drink before 12 months.

Which foods are a good source of iron?

There are two types of iron that our digestive systems can absorb – haem and non-haem.

Haem – This comprises 40% of the iron in meat, poultry, eggs (particularly yolks) and fish. Haem iron is well absorbed by the body.

Non-haem – All iron found in fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts is non-haem, and 60% of the iron found in animal tissue. Our bodies find it harder to absorb this type of iron.

Good sources of iron include:

  • breastmilk
  • iron-fortified follow-on formula
  • pulses and beans
  • squash, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, beet, tomato
  • meat – beef and pork
  • poultry – turkey and chicken
  • beef & chicken liver
  • greens – spinach, broccoli
  • egg yolks
  • dried fruit – figs, apricots, prunes, raisins (but make sure you don’t overload your little one with fibre)
  • prune juice
  • tofu
  • grains – cooked cracked wheat, wheat germ, cornmeal, millet, brown rice, farina, bran, breads, iron fortified cereals
  • yeast
  • oily fish – tuna, sardines, canned salmon

Try and give two servings from the list above per day for your toddler.

I’ve heard it’s good to have fruit with iron-rich foods. Why is this?

Vitamin C (which many fruits are a good source of) helps your body absorb iron, so it makes iron-rich foods more effective.

Therefore, foods that combine meat and fruit make nutritious meals for your baby. Breast milk also contains vitamin C so is a good drink to have along with your child’s meal.

Vitamin C is particularly useful for increasing the absorption of non-haem iron, so again look for recipes that contain both iron-rich and vitamin C-rich foods, or make sure you’re giving your little one fruit as pudding.

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Foods that are rich in vitamin C include citrus fruits, berries, green vegetables (including iron-rich broccoli), peaches, apples, bananas and tomatoes.

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