Why your child needs iron
Iron is a mineral necessary for growth and for carrying oxygen in the blood stream. If iron levels are too low, your baby can become tired, growth can be impaired and your baby’s ability to concentrate and learn can be reduced.
In the first 12 months of life birth weight triples and growth is faster during this period than at any other time in life. Iron is essential for this early rapid growth to help ensure healthy mental and physical development.
Your baby is born with its own iron stores accumulated when in utero. For the first six months of life these stores combined with breast milk meet your baby’s iron requirements. After six months of age, body iron stores are starting to diminish. It is also around this time that more iron is needed. A large amount of iron is required for growth. Problems can arise if breast-feeding or Follow-On formula is not continued. If solids are not introduced or are delayed, and if inappropriate weaning foods are chosen.
So how can you make sure your child gets enough iron for healthy development?
Popeye wasn’t quite telling the truth, as not all iron is the same. The iron in food is found in two main forms: haem iron and non-haem iron.
Haem iron, which is easily absorbed by the body, is found in animal-based foods, while non-haem iron, which is poorly absorbed by the body, is found in plant-based foods. The body absorbs about 25 percent of haem iron compared to only 1-5 percent of non-haem iron.
Excellent sources of haem iron include livers (lamb and chicken), kidneys, venison, lean beef and lamb. Generally the redder the meat the higher the iron content. Good sources of haem iron are lean chicken, pork and fish (including tinned fish).
Non-haem iron is found in wholegrain cereals, iron-fortified infant cereals, some fruits and vegetables such as spinach and silverbeet, legumes and eggs.
Non-haem iron is not well absorbed by the body, however, Vitamin C improves the absorption of non-haem iron. Our best sources of Vitamin C are fruits and vegetables.
Broccoli and cauliflower are rich in Vitamin C and can be included in an infant’s diet from six months of age. At around 8-9 months of age other Vitamin C rich foods such as kiwifruit, feijoas, tamarillos, tomatoes, oranges, mandarins and tangelos can be added.
Why meat matters
Even small amounts of meat in the diet improve iron absorption. Something in meat known as the ‘meat factor’ also helps the body absorb more of the non-haem iron in other foods such as vegetables.