Fortifying facts about iron

Iron deficiency is one of the world's most prevalent nutrient deficiencies, affecting about 2 billion people around the globe. It can produce a range of outcomes, from no health issues to anemia, which affects the functioning of several organ systems. In infants, iron deficiency can also delay gross motor skills and cognition.

Among children, iron deficiency most often occurs between ages six months and three years—a time when children grow quickly and may not be able to keep up with their body's demands for iron through diet alone.

Which children are at risk for iron deficiency? 

Some infants are at higher risk for iron deficiency than others, including…

  • babies born early or small 
  • babies given cow’s milk before they’re 1-year-old
  • breastfed babies who, after age six months, are not fed adequate amounts of iron-rich foods 
  • formula-fed babies who don’t drink iron-fortified formula 
  • children ages 1–5 who drink more than 8 ounces of cow, goat, or soy milk a day, which can result in an inadequate intake of iron-rich foods
  • children who have special health needs, such as children with chronic infections or those on special diets

Should I give my baby iron supplements? 

Until there is more data confirming the benefits and risks of iron supplements, parents are urged to talk with their child’s healthcare provider about supplements. While it might seem prudent to supplement every child “just in case,” too much iron can lead to slower growth and developmental delays similar to those seen in iron-deficient children. Some studies also link too much iron with an increased risk of infection. 

A blood sample is obtained through a simple heel or finger stick to screen for iron deficiency, and the hemoglobin level is measured.

How do I make sure my baby gets enough iron in his diet? 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that a baby get at least 11 milligrams of iron a day, preferably from iron-rich foods, once she’s old enough to eat solid foods—generally around six months. Toddlers ages 1–3 years need 7 milligrams of iron a day, preferably from iron-rich foods.

That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that parents do the following:

  • Between ages 4 and 6 months, introduce iron-rich foods (meat included) and foods high in vitamin C to boost iron absorption.
  • For formula-fed infants, use iron-fortified formula.
  • Give your child ages 1–5 years a diet that includes iron-rich foods.
  • If possible, breastfeed babies for at least 12 months. Human milk contains iron in smaller concentrations than formula. However, up to half of the iron in breast milk is absorbed through the intestinal tract into the baby’s body, as opposed to only 4 percent of iron from formula. Breast milk also contains vitamin C and lactose, both of which aid in the absorption of iron.

What are iron-rich foods? 

Good sources of iron are red meat, fortified cereals, and vegetables containing iron and vitamin C (which enhances absorption). Here’s an article describing the 10 best iron-rich foods. Also, the CDC provides several examples of iron-rich foods, as shown in the table below. 

Food SourceIron (mg)
Fortified instant cooked cereals (one packet)
Pumpkin and squash seed kernels, roasted (1 oz)
Lentils (½ cup)
Spinach (½ cup)
Prune juice (¾ cup)
Ground beef (3 oz)
Tomato puree (½ cup)

For more on knowing whether your baby is iron deficient, read this

Last updated December 6, 2021

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