Babies are born with a store of iron, but this gradually depletes and there comes a point where they need to have iron in their diets for healthy development.
This is usually from around six months, but can be earlier for babies born prematurely (because most of the reserves are laid down in the third trimester) or with a low birth weight.
So what's the best way to include iron in your baby’s diet? Meat (such as lamb, pork, beef and liver) and oily fish are excellent sources of iron which are easily absorbed by the body.
Beans (e.g. broad beans), pulses (e.g. lentils), eggs, dark green vegetables, and dried fruit (e.g. figs) are also good sources.
However the iron found in plants is known as non-heme iron, which is harder for the body to absorb.
Foods rich in vitamin C such as oranges, tomatoes and red peppers help the body absorb even more iron, so it’s a good plan to include these in meals with iron-rich foods, particularly if your baby is not eating meat. (If you are vegan, this First Steps Nutrition Trust guide for feeding under 5s a vegan diet is worth a read:
It is recommended that cow’s milk is avoided before the age of one because drinking too much of it can lead to an iron deficiency Even though cow’s milk has about as much iron as human milk, it isn’t absorbed well by the body and babies may fill themselves up with it at the expense of much better sources of iron and vitamin C.
There has been some controversy about whether babies who are exclusively breastfed should be given iron supplements before starting solid food. This has been recommended from four months by the American Academy of Pediatrics but is contested by some and is not official guidance in countries such as the UK.
If you’re interested in reading the other side of the debate, this KellyMom post argues why breastfed babies don’t need additional iron before six months:
Generally speaking, babies who are on solid foods and eating a varied diet with food rich in iron and/or vitamin C won’t need iron supplements. Indeed iron supplements can be toxic for children if they are taken in too high doses.
If you’re not sure whether or not your baby should have supplements, have a chat with your doctor or another health professional who can look at your baby’s individual circumstances.
Finally, if you’re wondering which foods are high in iron, this is a pretty exhaustive list of the iron content of different foods.