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Iron and Your Child

Nutrient in Focus – Iron

During pregnancy, a mother’s iron status will be carefully monitored to ensure they have adequate iron stores and intake to support both themselves and their growing baby’s requirements in utero and also up until baby is six months old. For those mothers following a vegetarian or vegan diet or one which is generally low in dietary iron, a supplement or infusion will usually be prescribed in order to meet the increased needs for this important nutrient. 

Up until baby is six months of age, it is assumed they will meet their requirements through breast milk or formula. However, from the age of six months, requirements increase from 0.2mg/day to 11mg per day and so it is essential to introduce complementary foods to ensure baby is able to reach these increased requirements.

Age GroupRecommended amount of Iron Per Day (mg)
0-6 months0.2
7-12 months11
1-3 years7
4-8 years10
9-13 years8
*Nutrient Reference Values taken from NRV Summary Tables, NHRMC, 2017

The Importance of Iron

Insufficient iron can lead to iron deficiency and even iron deficiency anaemia, which can vary in severity but untreated can hinder a child’s growth and development and result in learning and behavioural problems. 

This is due to the various roles iron plays in the body including:

  • Production of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles and organs in exchange for carbon dioxide which is carried to and expelled by the lungs
  • Production of new myoglobin cells, which are muscle cells that export, store, release and transport oxygen
  • Involvement in metabolic processes and energy production, thus any deficiency can lead to poor energy
  • Being a component of enzymes which are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as dopamine (one of the happy hormones)
  • Being essential for proper immune function

Which children are particularly at risk of iron deficiency?

  • Premature infants, as a large proportion (~80%) of mother’s iron stores are transferred to baby through the placenta in the last trimester of pregnancy
  • Low birth weight babies
  • Babies who drink cow’s milk or goat’s milk before age 1
  • Breast-fed babies who aren’t given complementary foods containing iron from 6 months of age
  • Formula fed babies who consume formula which is not iron fortified
  • Children who have certain health conditions, such as chronic infections or restricted diets
  • Children aged 1 to 5 who drink more than 700mL of cow’s milk, goat’s milk or soy milk a day
  • Poor dietary intake of iron rich foods

Many of the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency will not appear until iron deficiency anaemia occurs. However, if your infant or child falls into any of the categories listed above or you are concerned, you should talk to his or her doctor and consider a blood test and supplementation.

Signs and Symptoms of Iron Deficiency may include:

  • Slow weight gain
  • Pale skin
  • Poor appetite
  • Irritability
  • Less physically active, lethargic
  • Can result in delayed development
  • Behavioural problems
  • Frequent infections or illness
  • Unusual cravings for non-food items such as ice, dirt, paint or starch (a condition known as pica)
  • Impaired concentration and/or poor attention span.

Preventing Iron Deficiency

There a few key steps you can take to help prevent iron deficiency in your child:

  • If your child is born pre-term, you should consider an iron supplement (this should be discussed with your paediatrician/doctor before commencing)
  • Avoid consumption of calcium-containing foods such as cow’s milk, yoghurt and cheese around the consumption of iron-rich meals, as calcium and iron compete for absorption
  • Limit intake of milk in children aged 1 to 5; no more than 700mL per day
  • Consume iron-rich foods with a source of Vitamin C, as vitamin C enhances absorption of iron by up to 50%. While most fruit and vegetables are good sources of Vitamin C, capsicum, citrus fruits, tomatoes, dark leafy greens and strawberries are all particularly good.
  • Once baby is six months old, he or she should be offered at least one iron-rich meal per day and gradually progress to two/three iron-rich meals per day by the time he/she is 8 months old.

Iron Rich Meals

An iron rich meal is one that contains at least one substantial source of iron. Sources of iron can be broken into two key groups: haem and non-haem iron. Iron from most animal sources (haem iron) is generally more readily absorbed than iron from plant sources of food (non-haem iron), however both represent valuable sources of iron and contribute to a child’s overall iron intake. When consuming non-haem iron sources, it is particularly important to consume with a source of vitamin C to enhance absorption. A few key examples of haem and non-haem iron are:

Haem: Beef liver, lean beef, skinless chicken breast (dark meat), skinless chicken light meat, pork, salmon

Non-Haem: fortified rice cereal, red kidney beans, lima beans, tofu, egg yolk, dried apricots, dark leafy greens, rolled oats.

Iron deficiency in children can be prevented. To keep your child’s growth and development on track, offer iron-rich foods at meals and snacks and talk to your child’s doctor about the need for screenings and iron supplements.

Olivia Bates

Words by Olivia Bates

For more on infant nutrition head to our Baby & Toddler Nutrition Category,muscle%20function%2C%20and%20brain%20development.