Sometimes it seems like your baby has a great appetite and is devouring all kinds of great foods, but then those iron levels come back a bit low at the one-year checkup. Your baby certainly isn’t alone (it happens!), but you’ll probably still have questions—particularly about what iron-rich foods will help get those levels up.
In this post, we’ll cover:
Video: The Best IRON-RICH Foods for Babies (and How to Increase Absorption)
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Why Do Babies Need Iron?
Babies need iron for the same reasons that we do. Iron plays a vital role in the production of blood, including the formation of hemoglobin—the protein that carries oxygen throughout your body.
Babies are born with special reserves of iron (especially if you did delayed cord clamping!), but after a few months, the iron stores need to be replenished. (source)
How Much Iron Do Babies Need?
According to research published in the journal Pediatrics & Child Health, a seven-month-old baby needs about 11 mg of iron each day.
The Best Iron-rich Foods for Babies
The Best Iron-Rich Foods for Baby
Thankfully, iron is found in many different types of food, many of which are suitable for babies to eat. The following are the best iron-rich foods for baby, because they are easy for the body to absorb:
1. Meat & poultry
Beef liver is one of the most iron-rich meat sources. Just one three-ounce serving of liver contains 14.2 mg of iron. (source) Other good meat options include grass-fed lamb, beef, and all-natural chicken.
To prepare, get organic, pasture-raised beef or lamb (ground beef, a tender roast, or lamb chops are all great options). Cook in a frying pan and then put the meat in a blender with some broth or water and blend into a creamy puree to spoon feed.
Alternatively, purchase high-quality, grass-fed chicken, beef, bison, or lamb liver. Cook over medium heat in a frying pan in ghee or coconut oil. Once one side is brown, flip the liver, then brown the other side. Once cool, freeze the liver. Grate a tablespoon of frozen liver onto foods like scrambled eggs. Serve with sweet potato or mango to increase iron absorption (more on that below!).
2. Egg yolks
What’s an easier breakfast than an egg? One large egg yolk contains .5 mg of iron. (source) To make this easier for younger babies, medium-boil the egg, then mash the yolk with breastmilk, a pinch of salt, and a dab of ghee. (Don’t be afraid of introducing egg to babies—studies show that it’s best to expose baby to potential food allergens early.)
Other Iron-Rich Foods for Baby
Though not as easily absorbed by the body, these are some other quality iron-rich foods for baby:
1. Winter squash
About 1/2 cup of squash contains 5.8 mg of iron. Squash is easy to prepare, too. Simply steam and puree with a little breastmilk or broth.
2. Sweet potatoes
Like winter squash, sweet potatoes are easy for little babies to eat. Steam them, then mash with breastmilk or broth.
3. Sea vegetables
Sea vegetables include seaweed, nori, and dulse. Even if you’re not familiar with sea vegetables, it’s relatively easy to incorporate them into your diet. For instance, you can sprinkle dried dulse flakes over scrambled eggs. Or you can use this seaweed shaker as a seasoning on your baby’s savory food.
“Greens” refers to a wide variety of dark, leafy vegetables including kale, spinach, and Swiss chard. One cup of cooked greens contains anywhere from two to six grams of mg per cup. It’s very easy to sneak more cooked greens into a baby’s diet. For instance, cooked spinach pairs very well with pureed pears. Be sure baby is over 8 months before serving fibrous greens like these, as baby’s digestive system isn’t mature enough to properly digest them before that.
This category includes lentils, black beans, chickpeas, and even dried peas. One-half cup of lentils contains about 9 mg of iron. (source) Lentils are a perfect finger food for babies just learning to master their pincer grasp. You can also make easy pea or bean soups for babies, too!
6. Fortified products
Some cereals are fortified with iron and considered iron-rich foods, but not all cereals are created equally. (Learn more below!) Try to find cereals that do not have a lot of added sugar. If you’re looking for a hot cereal, skip the packets and choose rolled oats instead. John McCann Steel Cut Oats, for instance, contain 5.76 mg of iron per cup of oatmeal. (source)
What About Rice Cereal?
For years, rice cereal been touted as the perfect first food for baby—easy to eat, easy to make, and fortified with iron. Unfortunately, rice cereal is not a good first food for baby. In fact, it’s not recommended at all!
Why? Rice cereal is high in arsenic, and eating too much rice can lead to elevated arsenic levels in your baby. (source) What’s more, baby’s immature digestive tracts have trouble digesting grains so best to start them on fruits, veggies and pastured meats.
How to Increase Absorption of Iron-Rich Foods
You probably noticed that there were a lot of plant-based iron-rich foods on the lists above. Although plants do contain iron, plant-based iron-rich foods (also called non-heme iron sources) are harder to convert to a usable form, especially in a baby’s immature digestive tract. Animal-based proteins (also called heme iron) are easier to assimilate. (source)
It’s particularly important to note the difference between these types of iron, because non-heme iron is easily affected by other foods you eat. For instance, foods rich in calcium can inhibit your baby’s ability to extract that iron. (source)
The good news? There are two easy ways to increase your body’s absorption of iron-rich foods.
1. Eat more vitamin C
Vitamin C increases absorption of iron-rich foods (non-heme iron in particular), so it’s a good idea to serve iron-rich foods (especially plant-based iron-rich foods) with food that is also rich in vitamin C. (source)
Vitamin C-rich foods include:
- Bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
If you’re struggling to get enough vitamin-C rich foods into your baby’s diet, sprinkle a bit of camu camu powder over their fruit purees. If your child’s pediatrician wants you to supplement, look for a high-quality food-based vitamin such as this one.
2. Cook food in cast iron pans
Cooking in cast iron pans transfers some iron into food during the cooking process. In fact, a study published in the Indian Journal of Pediatrics found that cooking food in cast iron can raise the iron content in your food by as much as 16 percent. Even more incredible is that children with low hemoglobin saw nearly an 8 percent increase in their hemoglobin stats after regularly eating food cooked in cast iron pans. (source, source)
Need a new cast iron pan? Try this Lodge set. And don’t forget to check out this post on safe cookware.
Are Iron Supplements for Babies Necessary?
If iron is essential for people of all ages, iron stores begin to decrease around six months, rice cereal is out of the question, and many plant-based iron-rich foods are hard to digest, you may be wondering if your baby needs an iron supplement.
Healthy, full-term babies should have enough iron to last for about six months, and delayed cord clamping can help this even more. In most cases, iron supplementation is not necessary for these babies since you will be incorporating iron-rich foods into his/her diet around the same time iron stores dip. Keep in mind that the iron in breast milk, while considered “low” is easier to assimilate than synthetic iron sources that are found in baby formulas. (source)
On the other hand, iron supplementation may be necessary for babies at risk for low iron, including babies:
Note: Formula-fed babies should not take iron supplements, since formula is already fortified with iron.
Never start any supplements, including iron supplements, unless directed to do so by a physician. If you are concerned about your baby’s iron levels, talk to your child’s pediatrician. A simple blood test can provide information about your baby’s hemoglobin levels.
The Bottom Line
Iron is an essential nutrient that all babies need, but thankfully it is a nutrient that can be found in nutrient-dense, whole foods. What is your favorite way to serve iron-rich foods to babies?