When it comes to feeding your baby, iron rich foods are pretty much the first, and most important, thing to focus on in your baby's diet. It's not about fruits or veggies when you are feeding babies, as much as we might be made to think it is.
If you focus on iron rich foods for babies, you will be helping them to get an essential nutrient for their development. So put down the fruit and veggie concerns, and let's learn how to focus on iron rich foods instead.
Why Are Iron-Rich Foods Important for Babies?
Iron is a nutrient that helps a number of vital processes in your baby's body to function properly. One of it's main functions is as a component of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a part of red blood cells and helps to carry oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, and as a result hemoglobin, babies can suffer from iron-deficiency anemia. Iron-deficiency anemia can often result in fatigue and lethargy.
Iron also helps your baby's brain to develop normally, and helps with proper growth. All in all, iron plays a really important part of your baby's diet. Incorporating iron rich foods is vital for your baby.
How Much Iron Do Babies Need?
Now that you know the importance of incorporating foods rich in iron for your baby, you might want to know just exactly how much iron is enough.
But here is where it gets tricky. Whenever I share the specific recommended iron needs for infants, it tends to lead to parents feeling overwhelmed. "You want me to get HOW much iron in?" If you really break it down, the number passed around in medical circles for infant iron needs is highly impractical.
Unless you are giving your baby iron fortified infant formula. It might even be easy to think that you should give your baby formula to help them meet their iron needs.
But that is absolutely not the case. The recommended amount of iron for infants is based on a bunch of calculated numbers with a lot of assumptions made. At the end of the day, the fact of the matter is that there is a whole lot that we don't know about iron absorption. Especially around breast milk and early solid foods.
We know that lots of things will impact how much iron is absorbed and your baby's iron levels. Your baby's current iron stores, the food they eat with the iron-rich foods, the overall amount of certain nutrients like calcium in their diet. So many things go into how iron is absorbed. And that's just the things that we know about!
All of these things that affect absorption, and current general understanding of bioavailability of iron is what is behind the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron.
What is the RDA for Iron for 6-12 Month Olds?
Now it's time for the numbers. But it's important to look at them, and then continue to read everything I say as a caveat. The goal is for feeding your baby as they start solid foods to feel approachable. Not completely impossible.
For a 6-12 month old baby, the RDA is 11 mg of iron a day. To put that into perspective, here are some common baby appropriate iron-rich foods and their iron content:
In order to meet the RDA, babies would need to eat 11 oz of beef a day, or almost 3 cups of lentils. Somehow, I don't think any 6-12 month old can manage that!
How to Help Your Baby Meet Their Iron Needs
So now that you know the number, I want you to completely forget it. It isn't helpful in feeding your baby. I share it because many parents want the number. But stressing about how much iron your baby is eating is an endless downward spiral. Here's what I want you to do instead.
Tip 1: Focus on an Iron-Rich Food at Every Meal
First and foremost, every meal starting now, or when your baby starts solid foods if they haven't already, should contain an iron-rich food. Keep reading for some help with the best iron rich foods for babies. Or download the handout version so you can print it out and hang it on your fridge for easy reference at mealtimes.
If you follow my three category system, it helps you get there by prioritizing the types of foods that are important at each meal. And yes, iron-rich foods are first in it because they are the most important! I would much rather you prioritize an iron-rich food over a fruit or vegetable. Seriously!
Tip 2: Aim to Offer A Variety of Iron Sources
Not all iron sources are created equally. There are two types of iron found in food, called heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is only found in animal sources, and is more readily absorbable by our bodies.
Plant sources of foods only contain non-heme iron, which can't be absorbed by the body as easily. This is still an important source, though, and is where most people in the world tend to obtain their iron from.
By offering your baby both heme and non-heme iron, you can help to increase the amount of iron that their body absorbs. But what to do if your family is vegetarian? Or your baby has no interest in meat? Still focus on an iron-rich plant based food at every meal. And really pay attention to the next tip!
Tip 3: Pair Iron-Rich Foods with Vitamin C Rich Foods
Vitamin C rich foods are a bit of a magic potion when it comes to iron. They single handedly can help to increase iron absorption, both in heme and non-heme iron sources. In fact, vitamin C has actually been shown to increase absorption of iron from foods more than other foods inhibit it.
You may have heard to avoid dairy with iron sources, or around breast milk, or any other number of foods that don't help with iron absorption. But if you remember to add vitamin C rich foods to meals, that will outweigh any other potential food inhibitors. It's an amazing help for iron absorption!
Tip 4: Don't Offer Too Much Dairy Over the Course of a Day
This one tends to become more of a concern once your toddler starts drinking a source of milk other than breast milk or infant formula. For babies, it doesn't tend to affect things as much since they aren't drinking milk yet.
Traditionally, we've heard that you shouldn't serve dairy with your iron-rich foods for babies, as it will inhibit absorption. But remember how I said iron absorption is complicated and we really are just scratching the surface?
Digging into the current research, there's actually contradictory recommendations. Yes, individual foods can inhibit iron at a specific meal, including calcium in dairy. But it turns out that when you look at meals, and diets, as a whole, individual foods don't play anywhere near as much of a role in iron absorption overall.
If your baby's diet contains too much calcium, and dairy, over the course of a day it is likely to influence iron absorption. But I don't recommend focusing too much on it meal by meal. Focus on offering a variety of foods, and including a vitamin C rich food at mealtimes when possible. That is your best bet for helping with iron absorption. (Ref)
Tip 5: Cook Food in Cast Iron Pans!
Sometimes this one can feel a bit out of left field, but it really can make a difference. Cooking food in a cast iron pan has been shown to increase iron amounts in foods. Cast iron cookware isn't magic, though. You still need to focus on offering iron-rich foods to your baby, but every little bit can help. As an added benefit, with proper care and seasoning you can have a non-stick pan that is better for the environment and even your family's health. (Ref)
Does my Baby need an Iron Supplement?
Once you realize that your baby is unlikely to eat the amount of iron each day that medical experts recommend, the natural next question is if they need a supplement for it. After all, iron is one of the essential nutrients in your baby's diet. We do want to be making sure they are meeting their needs.
First and foremost, my answer is "it depends." On what you ask? So many things!
If your baby is getting iron fortified formula, then the answer will almost always be that they do not need additional iron supplementation. Too much iron isn't a good thing either, so we need to strike a balance with any type of fortification.
If your iron levels during pregnancy were normal, and/or you had delayed cord clamping at birth, your baby's iron levels are likely to be higher than if that wasn't the case.
The only way to tell what your baby's iron levels are is to test them. Many pediatrician's offices in the US have a quick in-office heel prick test for hemoglobin levels. This is a normal, and recommended test for all babies in the US between 9-12 months. Using this screening test, doctors can help you assess what your own baby's iron levels are. That is hands down the best way to proceed before any iron supplementation.
Outside of the US, the test is not always recommended as a screening tool. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't ask for a hemoglobin test! The only way to tell iron levels is to test them. And with the amount of knowledge that we have about iron absorption, or better yet the lack of knowledge, I'm a firm believer that it is 100% a necessary piece of information to monitor for all children.
When to Supplement Iron for Babies
Once you have a hemoglobin test, it is a little easier to make the decision to supplement or not. Too much iron isn't a good thing either. Many providers will recommend across the board iron supplementation for breast-fed infants, but I don't think that is appropriate in all cases.
If you have a conversation with your health care provider about your child's iron levels, the circumstances that might be affecting them, and your diet, and they still recommend supplementation then please take that into account. Iron is vital for your baby, and I would rather have parents supplement across the board than have a baby that is severely iron deficient.
With that said, before 4-6 months most babies have plenty of iron left from their mother. IF you focus on iron rich foods once you start solids around 6 months and pair them with vitamin C rich foods when possible, even if your baby isn't actually eating a lot of them, many babies will meet their actual needs. This goes to all of the things we don't know about iron absorption, and how much need affects a body's absorption amount.
Once you get to 9 months, then I recommend testing hemoglobin. This will give you a good idea if your focus on iron-rich foods is enough for your baby, if you need to kick it up a little, or if they need more help to get enough iron in the form of fortified foods or supplementation.
Deciding If You Should Supplement Iron
Remember, and I can't stress this enough, I may be conservative when it comes to recommending iron supplements and fortification, but every baby is different. It is ten thousand times more important to work with your own health care provider and come up with a plan for your baby's needs around iron. I like parents to know that there is an option when it comes to giving an iron supplement, but that doesn't mean that iron supplements aren't the right choice for your child.
What are the Best Sources of Iron for Babies?
With all that out of the way, let's get to some actual iron rich foods recommendations.
Often times in tradition weaning, or pureed baby food, one of the most recommended foods is fortified infant cereal. This has usually been rice cereal, but due to potentially high levels of metals like arsenic, rice cereal is no longer recommended for babies. Instead, if you find it easier to go the infant cereal route your best bet is a grain like oats. Otherwise, when doing purees any of the foods I mention below are great options to serve in pureed forms.
The Best Iron Rich Foods for Baby Led Weaning
When it comes to baby led weaning, there are many examples of finger food that can be iron rich. If your family are meat eaters, red meat like beef (it can be ground beef or steak) or lamb can be one of the best options. The heme iron in red meat is easily absorbed, and can help your baby to meet their iron needs. (Learn how to safely serve meat to your baby here!)
Some plant foods rich in iron include legumes like lentils, white beans, kidney beans, and black beans. These are all great options for baby led weaning. You can find many recipe ideas for making these into the perfect finger food for babies. Or you can simply cook them, mash them with a fork just enough to break them up, and serve them in a heap on their plate. Babies will use their palmar grasp first to sweep them up and get them into their mouth. The more practice they have at this, the better they get!
Iron Rich Foods I Don't Recommend for Babies
There are many people out there that are proponents of offering babies chicken liver to help with their iron intake. While chicken liver, or any liver really, is a good source of iron, it also comes with some other pretty big cons.
Liver meat has a lot of vitamin A, and can quickly lead to vitamin A toxicity if too much is eaten.
Livers, as an organ, function to detoxify a body. In both humans and animals. That means that any environmental toxin, like heavy metals, get processed and concentrated in the liver. Studies have shown that livers can contain excessive amounts of environmental toxins that far exceed the recommended consumption amount for humans. (Ref)
For babies, the safe amount of these toxins is likely even less, which means it can be pretty risky to offer liver. It's better to focus on other iron-rich foods and leave the liver out.
The Best Vitamin C Foods for Babies
We can't have an article about iron rich foods for babies without including some great sources of vitamin C. While most fruits are not good sources of iron, they tend to be great sources of Vitamin C. A good thing since many babies prefer them!
Here are some examples:
The Best Iron Rich Foods for Babies Ranked
Below find some of the best iron rich foods for babies, including how much each serving size offers. Remember though, it's not about the numbers and how much your baby eats! I'm simply including amounts of iron offered to help you get a feel for how much or how little iron is present in each food, and how lots of different foods really can add up.
Animal Sources of Iron
Vegetarian Sources of Iron
*Eggs are a bit of a conundrum when it comes to Iron. Some research shows them to have inhibiting effects on iron absorption even though they have a good amount of iron content themselves. At the end of the day, I still count them as an iron source, as they likely add at least some iron to your baby's intake. It is important not to rely on them as the main, or even primary source of iron, though.
For a more lengthy list of the best iron rich foods for babies, I've got a fridge handout as a resource available to my email list. Having an easy reminder to reference at meal times can make all the difference to actually getting that iron food on the table.
If you're interested in learning how to feed your baby in a stress-free way that helps set them up for life, be sure to check out the Starting Solids course! You'll find more advice for starting solids by focusing on the things that actually matter in the long run, and not everything else.