Babies are born with their own stores of iron, which they obtain from their mothers during the final months of pregnancy. After a few months, they'll need to replenish those levels.
Most healthy babies who are born full-term, and whose mothers had a healthy pregnancy, have enough iron to last four to six months after birth.
Premature babies, low birth weight babies and babies born to mothers with poorly controlled diabetes are at risk of having low iron stores, which can lead to iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia. For these babies, iron supplementation may be necessary, under medical supervision.
Iron has various roles in the body, including the transport of oxygen around the body in the blood. If the body lacks iron, there is less oxygen, which then makes it harder to concentrate, remember and learn. This can have an impact in later life. Lack of iron can also cause tiredness and irritability.
In the past, babies’ first foods commonly included iron-fortified cereals, starchy vegetables and fruit, then eventually poultry and fish. But new research now shows that red meat can be introduced as early as six months, once first tastes are established, to help increase iron levels.
Red meat, including lamb, beef and veal, has the most absorbable iron compared to any other foods. Poultry and fish then follow. See the table in our article Iron and toddlers for more details on which foods contain the most iron.
Tips for raising iron levels in babies
- Breastfeed if possible, especially for at least the first six months. Breast milk is low in iron but the absorption rate is high. Once iron-rich food or iron-fortified formula is introduced into the diet, iron absorption reduces due to the increase of dietary intake of iron.
- Once solid foods are started (especially at six to seven months), introduce red meat, poultry and fish, making sure the meat is tender, well cooked and pureed until silky smooth - braised meats or casseroles are good for this. This will help ensure easier digestion and better absorption of iron.
- Introduce other iron-rich foods, which include offal, iron-fortified baby cereals, whole grains (especially quinoa, millet, amaranth and barley), legumes and beans, peas, avocados, dark green vegetables and dried apricots.
- To enhance iron absorption, combine vitamin C-rich foods, like bright coloured fruit and vegetables, together with iron rich foods.
If you think your baby has low iron levels or is deficient, see your GP to confirm this through a blood test. Never give your baby iron supplements unless medically advised; iron is toxic in large amounts, and can be fatal. It's also important to note that a breastfeeding baby’s iron level can’t be increased by her mother taking an iron supplement.