The best start in life
Infants and young children grow far more rapidly than adults. This is a crucial stage in their development and good nutrition is vital. Iron is one of a range of nutrients that is particularly important for health. It helps to make red blood cells, which carry oxygen from the lungs to body tissues.
Infants who do not get enough iron can develop a disorder called iron deficiency anaemia and, consequently, have an increased risk of developmental delay. Children with iron deficiency anaemia can be tired, listless, and are sometimes irritable. They may also pick up infections easily. If you are concerned about iron deficiency anaemia talk to your GP or Public Health Nurse.
Nearly one in 10 toddlers in Ireland are estimated to have iron deficiency anaemia. As cow’s milk is such a poor source of iron it is important that it is not given as a main drink in babies before 1 year of age.
Where do infants get iron?
Your baby is born with enough iron stores to last them until they are about 6 months of age. A this point foods introduced to the diet provide the baby with dietary iron. For this reason it is essential that iron-containing foods are included in the diet.
What are the best sources of iron?
Iron from meat, chicken and fish (haem iron) is more easily absorbed than iron from cereals, eggs, vegetables or beans (non-haem iron). Including meat, chicken or fish as part of a mixed daily diet for both infants and young children has been shown to be effective in preventing anaemia.
Ten tips for a healthy baby!
- Breast milk is the very best beginning for your baby and the iron in breast milk is well absorbed.
- Formula milk, all of which is fortified with iron, should be used for babies who are not breast fed.
- Until baby's first birthday, breast milk or formula should be used as the main milk drink. From six months, cows' milk may be used to mix cereals or as an ingredient in foods such as custards and rice. Cows' milk should not be used as the main milk drink before the age of one year.
- Your baby can begin to take foods from a spoon from about four months if bottle fed, and 6 months if breast fed. Iron-rich foods, such as puréed lean meat and chicken can be used as can fruits, vegetables and gluten free cereals.
- Initially, all foods should be soft (i.e. bananas, baby rice) or puréed (i.e. meat, vegetables), but gradually as your baby learns to chew, they will be able to manage more lumpy consistencies (mashed or minced foods).
- Offer a variety of foods during infancy and childhood; include meats, fruits and vegetables, cereals (may contain gluten from six months), breads and potatoes. Aim to be feeding a mixed diet by one year. If you wish your child to eat a vegetarian diet, seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist.
- Foods which contain vitamin C, for example citrus fruits, help the absorption of iron from cereals, vegetables and breads if taken at the same meal. Do not give tea or coffee to infants or toddlers as they prevent iron in foods being absorbed.
- Provide nourishing between-meal snacks; for example use fruit, yoghurt or bread instead of sweets, biscuits or crisps.
- Avoid an over-reliance on milk during the second year, as infants who drink too much milk may be reluctant to eat the foods they need.
- Iron medication is potentially toxic, so, it should be kept out of the reach of children and only used under medical supervision.
Contact your doctor or public health nurse if you require further dietary information.
Further dietary information available from the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (www.indi.ie) and the Health Promotion Unit (www.healthpromotion.ie).