Iron in Your Child's Diet

Parenting in the Early Years

Iron in Your Child's Diet

Iron in red blood cells carries oxygen to all parts of the body. When children don't get enough iron, they may look pale, act cranky, and not have much energy in general. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, iron-deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutritional problems in children.

Ways to Improve Your Child's Iron Intake

  1. Breastfeed as long as possible or feed an iron-fortified infant formula.
  2. Delay feeding cow's milk to infants until age 12 months. There are 2 reasons for this:
    • Cow's milk is low in iron
    • Cow's milk can irritate the lining of the intestine, causing bleeding and the loss of iron. The blood loss is a tiny amount, but over time can become significant.
  3. Add iron-fortified infant cereal to baby's diet by 6 months of age. Babies are born with iron stores great enough to cover the first 4-6 months of rapid growth.
  4. Limit cow's milk to no more than 3 cups or 24 oz. per day after 12 months of age. Limit juice to 4-6 oz. per day. Toddlers and preschoolers can easily fill up on fluids missing the important nutrients found in solid foods.
  5. Serve nutritious foods at snack time. Many people consider a snack a "treat". It is important to remember that a snack is a "mini-meal" and therefore should provide important nutrients required for growth. Remember food safety for children under 4 years of age. Choose moist meats and cut pieces small.
  6. Take care to plan menus that provide sources of iron. For both children and adults, only a small percentage of iron in food is absorbed. Iron is absorbed much better from meats, poultry, and fish than from vegetables and grains. If your child eats food rich in vitamin C at the same time as foods rich in iron, the iron will be absorbed much better. Some examples include:
    • Spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce
    • Meat and potatoes
    • Chicken fajitas with broccoli, sweet peppers, and tomatoes
    • Hamburger with coleslaw
    • Hot dogs (nitrate-free) with orange wedges
    • Fresh fruit with iron-fortified cereal
  7. Cook in iron pots. The acid in foods seems to pull some of the iron content out of the pot. Simmering acidic foods, such as tomato sauce can increase the iron content of the brew more than tenfold.

How Much Iron Does My Child Need?

Children need different amounts of iron at different times in their lives. Rapid growth increases iron needs. So does iron loss.

  • Term babies are born with a large reserve of iron, which lasts about 4-6 months. At about 6 months of age your pediatrician will instruct you to begin iron-fortified infant cereal to meet the needs of your rapidly growing infant.
  • Toddlers ages 1-3 years continue to grow rapidly which means that they use iron more quickly.
  • Children ages 3-11 are not likely to become iron-deficient because they are not growing as rapidly and they tend to eat more iron rich foods such as meats.
  • Adolescents require more iron to meet the demands of growth during puberty
  • Teenage girls require more iron due to blood loss from menstruation. Anemia can also be seen in adolescents who are restricting calories in their diets for they tend to eliminate iron rich foods.
  • Athletes require increased amounts of iron due to increased elimination of iron during prolonged vigorous exercise.

Note: Call your child's physician during office hours if:

  • Your child consistently appears pale, acts cranky or has decreased energy
  • Your child consistently eats a diet low in iron