Thinking about Baby Led Weaning for your bub, but worried about them getting enough iron? Read on …
We know that iron is important, after all it helps the body build red blood cells which circulate oxygen around the body. It also helps with cognitive development and building a strong immune system. But one of the biggest concerns parents have when introducing solids is whether bubs will get enough iron. Especially when doing Baby Led Weaning (BLW). But can BLW provide enough iron? The short answer is ‘yes it can’. Here’s how…
Yes, it’s true that babies have an increased requirement for iron once they reach six months. Their own iron stores, built up during the late stages of pregnancy, have started to run low. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight! But from around six months their needs begin to increase.
Although there is iron in breastmilk, there is a smaller amount than that found in formula. Having said that, the iron in breastmilk is much more absorbable – around 50% is absorbed vs 10%  in formula. Meaning both breastfed* and formula-fed babies receive similar amounts.
*Dependent on mum’s iron levels when breastfeeding.
So, from six months, all babies still receive some iron from their breastmilk and formula, but they need a little extra from the foods you introduce to them. This is why solids are also known as ‘complimentary foods’, as they compliment baby’s milk.
But how much do they need, and where should they get it from to ensure they get enough?
Is your baby getting enough iron?
Iron is a critical nutrient for brain development, so iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) can be a concern for some parents, as IDA could lead to poor neurodevelopment . But did you know that excess iron may have an adverse effect on growth? So, it is important to take a leaf out of Goldilocks’ book and find the amount that is ‘just right’.
Firstly, it is important to remember that not every baby is the same. This is as relevant for iron levels as it is for hitting milestones. Just like the variations from baby to baby in how many teeth they have at six months, or what age they start sitting unassisted, their needs for iron vary too.
Iron needs may vary simply due to the levels in the milk they drink and their own abilities to absorb the iron. But more significantly, a baby’s iron needs depend on: their mother’s iron levels before, during and especially in the last trimester of pregnancy (and afterwards if breastfed); if they were born prematurely, since babies’ iron stores build in the last few months of pregnancy; and if they had a low birth weight, even if born full-term.
If any of these are the case, then your baby will likely have higher iron requirements, which should be discussed with your GP/paediatrician and nutritional therapist for advice specific to your child’s circumstances.
How much iron?
So, how much iron does a full-term, healthy-weight baby need? The average iron intake from age nought to six months is 0.2 mg/day (based on breastmilk consumption). The estimated average requirement for age seven to 12 months is 7 mg/day, whilst the recommended daily intake is 11 mg/day , which equates to 500g of lean beef mince!
Whilst their requirement doesn’t make this huge jump overnight, it is a big increase which we should work up to as quickly as possible. Which is why it is important to include as many iron-rich foods throughout the day as possible, and BLW is a great way to do this.
The best sources of iron for BLW
If you have decided to skip the iron-fortified baby cereal (which has low absorption rates anyway), you may be wondering where your baby’s iron is going to come from now. You do not always need to jump straight to supplementation (unless advised by your GP of course), which can cause their own issues (like constipation). Just take a look below…
The top sources of iron [4, 5] are:
- Meats: beef, lamb, pork, veal, liver (including pate), chicken, turkey – strips that they can hold and suck on are a great place to start, as well as softly cooked mince and slow cooked meats. Fish is also a good option – tuna, sardines, salmon etc.
- Eggs: egg yolk is high in iron, but serve whole so baby receives the whole nutrition from the egg – serve scrambled, medium-boiled and sliced lengthways, or omelette strips.
- Legumes: kidney beans, black beans, butter/lima beans, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas – cooked until softened so easier to digest; a great tool to practice that pincer grip! Natural peanut butter is another good source.
- Nuts & seeds: almonds and cashews (as nut butters, not whole due to their choking risk!), sesame seeds (in the form of tahini – try baking veggies in a coating of tahini mixed with a little water).
- Fruits & vegetables: potato, sweet potato, broccoli, brussels sprouts, green peas, beans, spinach*, and dried apricots.
- Grains & cereals: amaranth, spelt, oats, quinoa, rice, iron-fortified cereals and bread
- Other: hummus, blackstrap molasses, quinoa, tofu – great sources of iron.
*Spinach is high in oxalic acid so, to err on the side of caution, wait until 8-10 months before introducing spinach to your baby. Oxalic acid reduces the absorption of iron, but can be reduced by cooking, so serve spinach cooked not raw. It is unclear whether baby spinach has lower oxalic acid levels than mature spinach, so again, best to serve it cooked, and in small quantities, until baby is older (8 months plus).
I don’t believe in focussing on numbers and exact amounts of iron/foods to give, which becomes too stressful. However, I do think it is useful to know the amounts of iron found in realistic serving sizes of some of the foods mentioned above. Here are a few examples with approximate iron levels in brackets:
- one egg (0.6 mg)
- two tablespoons of beef mince (0.5 mg)
- one tablespoon of kidney beans (0.9 mg)
- one tablespoon of almond butter (0.6 mg)
- one tablespoon of hummus (0.4 mg)
- one tablespoon of tahini (1.3 mg)
- half a cup of potato (0.6 mg)
- half a cup of broccoli (0.4 mg)
- half a cup of oats (1.5-2 mg)
A few things to bear in mind…
Firstly, heme iron, the type found in meat and animal sources, is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron found in plant sources, and it is best for a baby to have a good mix of both.
Secondly, remember that 11mg is an average requirement (from breastmilk/formula and food) for ages seven to 12 months. There can be a big difference in size and appetite between a 7 month old and a year old child. 12-month olds will need more iron than seven-month olds, but they can also eat more food, so they will work up to this amount gradually. The great news is that babies progress very quickly to consuming a fair amount of food with BLW.
My 4 simple tips on getting enough iron into your bubs (6-12 months)
- Continue providing adequate breastmilk or formula as baby’s main source of nutrients. At this age, solids are complimentary foods used to boost baby’s nutrient intake, and to gradually get their digestive system ready to transition completely to solids.
- Ensure every meal includes some iron-rich foods right from the start – including meat, egg, legumes or nuts ensures a good source of protein too.
- Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods, as this vitamin enhances the absorption of non-haem iron (especially in legumes) into the body. Breastmilk provides vitamin C, but so too do capsicums, tomatoes, broccoli, citrus fruit and berries, as well as other fruits. Beef mince in a tomato-based sauce is a perfect combo.
- Avoid calcium-rich foods at the same time as iron-rich foods, as this inhibits the uptake of iron. A sprinkle of grated cheese is probably not going to have a significant impact, but a glass of milk with dinner is not a good idea (not to mention it will fill them up too much to eat their dinner!). Same goes for adults – ditch the cup of tea or coffee with your meal, as the polyphenols inhibit the iron uptake.
When’s the best time to start introducing solids? Check out my blog post here. For more tips on introducing solids, as well as other early childhood nutrition, check out more of my blog posts where I’ll be adding more over the coming months!
 Recommendations to Prevent and Control Iron Deficiency in the United States