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Why is iron so important for babies?

Baby eating her first tastes of solid foodIf your baby is ready to start solid food then you probably already know that the current recommendation* is that their diet should include iron-rich first foods.

But why is this recommended? Why is iron so important? And why do babies suddenly need more iron when they are about six months old?

Why is iron important?

Iron is an incredibly important nutrient for everyone – including babies.

One of iron’s main jobs is to make haemoglobin – the component of red blood cells that carries oxygen around your body. Every teensy tiny cell in your body needs oxygen to stay alive, so you can see why haemoglobin, and the iron that makes it, are so crucial.

All people require different amounts of iron, depending on their size and age, so naturally kids need different amounts of iron at different stages throughout their lives.

Why do babies need more iron when they’re about six months old?

Babies are born with a store of iron that slowly gets used up as they grow.

This store is generally running low around the 6 month old mark, so that’s when they start needing more iron via their food. Up until then, they receive enough iron from this store and from what they receive through breast milk or formula. Expectant mothers should have your own iron levels checked during pregnancy to ensure they have enough for themselves and to pass on to baby.

At about 6 months, babies start needing more iron, which they can get from solid foods. This can be from foods which naturally have iron such as cooked pureed meat, chicken, fish, or legumes, and iron-fortified foods such as baby rice cereal.

Did you know a baby needs more iron than their dad does?

With all the growing a baby is doing in their first year, their iron gets used up pretty quickly. Babies aged from 6-12 months need more iron because they do so much growing and learning. The iron helps keep up their energy levels and ensures their bodies are getting the essential oxygen from their red blood cells for normal growth and development.

If your baby – or anyone – does not get the right amount of iron, they can become iron-deficient. This means they do not have enough iron to make sure their oxygen is making its way to all of their cells in time for the cells to use it properly.

Signs your baby might be iron deficient:

  • Repeat infections
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Breathlessness
  • Increased sweating
  • Delay in normal growth

If you are ever concerned about your baby’s iron levels, don’t hesitate to see a medical professional.

READ: You can read more about starting solids in our Starting Solids hub

What are some iron-rich first foods?

The current recommendation* is that foods can be introduced in any order as long as iron-rich foods are included in baby’s first foods and they are a texture appropriate for the baby’s stage of development.

Here are some good iron-rich first foods for baby:

  • cooked pureed meat, chicken, fish
  • cooked pureed tofu
  • cooked pureed beans, legumes, lentils
  • iron-fortified infant cereal
  • leafy green vegetables

You should make sure your baby is getting a healthy diet including any or all of the foods above, plus there are many others than contain iron. You can puree these foods or give them as finger foods, depending on how your baby likes to eat. Why not chat to other parents on our forum to get some great ideas for foods to give your baby?

Unless your baby has a medical reason for low iron, keeping up a healthy diet of fresh foods should be enough to keep their iron stores at a good level. Your doctor can always help if you have any issues or concerns.

*Infant Feeding Guidelines NHMRC 2012

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