Last updated on Feb 24th, 2021 at 05:42 pm

Children need plenty of iron in their diets for healthy growth and brain development. In fact, iron is essential because it helps to transport oxygen to every cell in the body. If your child doesn’t eat enough iron-rich foods, he could be at risk for low levels of iron or iron-deficiency anaemia, says Johannesburg-based dietician Abby Courtenay, who specialises in maternal, infant and child nutrition. If left untreated, this can cause serious mental and physical delays. So when do you start feeding your child iron-rich foods and what are the best sources of iron?

Iron requirements for babies and toddlers

Studies have shown that breastfed babies rarely lack iron. This is because the iron found in breast milk is easy for your little one’s body to absorb. So for the first six months, your baby will get all the iron he needs from his own stores and regular milk feeds. Many formulas on the market are also fortified with iron. If you’re not breastfeeding, ask your paediatrician for advice on the best formula to use.
At around six months of age, the iron stores that your baby accumulated in utero will have run out. This means he’ll need to start eating a variety of iron-rich foods to support his growth and development. From six to 12 months, a child’s recommended daily allowance for iron is the highest it will be until he’s a teenager, says Abby. Use the following table as a guide to see how much iron your child needs per day:

Infants 7-12 months 11mg/d
1-3 years 7mg/d
4-8 years 10mg/d
9-13 years 8mg/d
Girls: 14-18 years 15mg/d
Boys: 14-18 years 11mg/d

What are the best sources of iron?

There are two types of iron in food: haem iron (from animal foods) and non-haem iron (from plant foods). Haem iron is readily absorbed by the body (about 10 times more easily than non-haem iron). Meats are the best source of iron and the redder the meat, the higher the iron content, explains Abby. This means that beef and lamb are higher in iron than pork, chicken or fish.
Non-haem iron is found in some plant foods, such as legumes, wholegrains, green, leafy vegetables and dried fruit. However, it’s not absorbed by the body as well as iron from animal foods. If you’re not a huge fan of red meat, pairing vitamin C with non-haem iron foods can help the body absorb iron more effectively, adds Abby. Tea and bran are major iron blockers, so avoid giving these to your child if you’re concerned about his iron intake.

Spot the signs of iron deficiency

If your little one has the following symptoms, he could have an iron deficiency that needs to be treated:

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  • Unusual fatigue or weakness
  • Pale skin with dark circles under the eyes
  • Inflammation of the tongue
  • Slow social, emotional and cognitive development
  • Gets cold quickly
  • More susceptible to infections
  • Digestive problems
  • Unusual cravings for non-food items such as dirt or ice.

How to increase iron in your baby’s diet

  • Speak to your doctor about introducing an iron supplement. This can be introduced from four months of age, to give 1mg/kg/day, or approximately 7mg/d.
  • Don’t replace breast milk/ formula milk with cow’s milk until your child is a year old. Cow’s milk is not a good source of iron and may displace iron sources.
  • Make your baby’s first foods rich in iron, such as lamb stew, spaghetti bolognaise or chicken with vegetables at least twice per day.

For a child raised on a primarily vegetarian diet

  • Add the following foods to his diet: fortified cereals, beans, peas, lentils, ground nuts/seeds and thinly spread nut/seed butters, tofu and eggs.
  • Pair these iron-rich foods with foods containing vitamin C, including oranges, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, mango, melons, sweet potato, sweet peppers and broccoli.
  • Cook with cast-iron as this can increase the amount of iron in foods.

About the dietician
Abby Courtenay RD(SA) is an associate dietician at Nutritional Solutions. She has a special interest in maternal, infant and child nutrition and extensive experience working with adults within the realm of weight loss and the treatment and prevention of lifestyle- related conditions. Contact her at