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Babies and Toddlers Need Iron to Thrive

Iron-rich foods may not top your list of what to feed your baby or toddler. Yet this mineral is key to your young child's growing body and mind, experts say.

Iron moves oxygen around your child's body. Without enough iron, your child may feel tired and listless or have poor motor skills. Your child also needs iron for sharper thinking.

According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, current research studies have reported a link between maternal iron deficiency anemia and postpartum depression, as well as performance on mental and psychomotor tests in their children. 

Greater risk

Young children may be at greater risk for a lack of iron because they need more iron during growth spurts.

To head off iron-related problems in a newborn, women planning a family should make sure to eat foods rich in iron. In addition, following conception, ask your doctor about prenatal vitamins. If you don't breastfeed, use iron-fortified formula. Use iron-fortified baby cereals when you start your child on solid foods (at age 6 months). However, breast milk may not need iron supplementation, as the iron in human milk is easily absorbed by the infant. At age 6 months, breastfed babies need iron-rich solids gradually added to their diet because their iron stores from birth are depleted.

Infants from birth to age 6 months should get 0.27 mg of iron a day. Breastfeeding moms should talk to their pediatricians if they take iron supplements during this time. From ages 7 months to 12 months, the dietary reference intake (DRI) is much higher: 11 mg a day. For toddlers ages 1 to 3, the DRI is 7 mg a day.

Too much iron is harmful. This isn't a risk with iron-bearing foods, though. Children will become satiated before an iron toxicity is a problem. However, iron supplement ingestion by an infant, toddler, or child can be fatal. Be sure to tighten supplement caps and keep out of reach from children.

Foods for iron

Both animal and plant foods supply iron. Animal sources are easier for the body to absorb. If you eat foods that contain vitamin C and plant foods at the same meal, you can increase iron absorption in your system. For instance, make a salad with kidney beans and orange segments.

Animal sources

  • Lean braised beef

  • Roast chicken leg

  • Baked halibut

  • Organ meats

  • Pork loin

  • Turkey

  • Duck

  • Sardines

  • Tuna

  • Shellfish, clams, shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat

  • Egg yolks

Plant sources

  • Iron-fortified breakfast cereal

  • Iron-fortified instant oatmeal

  • Enriched grits

  • Tofu

  • Whole wheat bread

  • Enriched white bread

  • Tomato paste

  • Prune juice

  • Legumes, including lentils, kidney beans, lima beans, refried beans, chickpeas, green soy beans, black beans, and pinto beans