Iron and your toddler

Healthy ingredient ... It’s best to make sure that your toddler eats a variety of foods that contain iron every day.
Healthy ingredient ... It’s best to make sure that your toddler eats a variety of foods that contain iron every day. 

Children - from babies through to preschoolers, then onto teenagers - are at a high risk of iron deficiency. And iron performs many vital acts in the body, including transporting oxygen around the body in the blood, so it's important to keep iron stores at a healthy level.

When iron levels are low, it can be harder to concentrate, remember and learn. It can make children tired, pale, irritable and prone to headaches. 

Children who don’t get enough iron in their diets can become anaemic, which can lead to a number of dangerous complications. It can also can make it easier for them to get infections. In addition, iron deficiency is thought to permanently effect brain development.

It’s best to make sure that your toddler eats a variety of foods that contain iron every day.

How much does my child need?

Iron requirements change over time according to your child’s development and age. The National Health and Medical Research Council gives the following guide to recommended daily intake:  

• 7-12 months: 11mg/day
• 1-3 years: 9mg/day
• 4-8 years: 10mg/day

How does my child get iron? 

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. 

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There are two types of iron in food: haem iron and non-haem iron. The body absorbs haem iron easier than non-haem iron.

Haem iron is found in fleshy foods, such as red meat, poulty and fish. Red meat, including beef, lamb and veal, has the most absorbable iron compared to any other foods; it's also packed with essential nutrients like iron, zinc, B vitamins and protein, which are all important for growth and development. Other sources of haem iron include chicken, pork, fish and shellfish. It can also be found in offal meats, such as liver and kidney.

Iron can also be found in non-haem iron sources. These are mainly plant foods, and include:

• iron-fortified cereals
• wholemeal and wholegrain breads
• peas, beans and legumes such as lentils, baked beans, soybeans, kidney beans and tofu
• spinach, parsley, broccoli and other leafy green vegetables
• eggs
• dried fruit.

As the body has to work harder to absorb the iron from these foods, it can help to serve them with sources of vitamin C – this vitamin helps the body soak up the iron it needs. Foods that are high in vitamin C include some fruits (citrus fruits, pineapple, rockmelon, strawberries, tomato) and vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, capsicum, cauliflower), so try adding them to meals, serving them afterwards, or giving your toddler a glass of a citrus fruit juice at mealtimes.    

Note that 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.

How much iron is in each food?

AUSNUT 2007 is Food Standards Australia New Zealand's specific nutrient database. It gives the following advice on adult serving sizes and iron intake and can be used as a general guide. 

Haem-iron food     

Serve

Iron (mg)

Liver
Liver pate         
Beef
Chicken
Fish
Oysters
Salmon

100g cooked          
40g (2 Tbsp)
100g cooked
100g cooked
100g cooked
100g
100g

11.0
2.0-3.0
3.0
0.5-1.0
0.4-1.3
3.9
1.3

Non-haem iron foods

Serve

Iron (mg)

Eggs
Breakfast cereal (fortified)     
Wholemeal bread
Spinach
Lentils/kidney beans
Tofu
Sultanas
Dried apricots
Almonds

100g (2)
30g (1 cup)
60g (2 slices)            
145g cooked
100g cooked
100g
50g
50g
50g

2.0
2.5
1.3
4.5
2.0
2.3
1.0
1.6
1.8