In Annabel’s latest Weaning book we talk about “Critical Nutrients”. These are the nutrients that your baby’s food must provide because from 6 months of age as neither breast milk or formula alone provides enough nutrition for your babies growth and development. The phrase “Food is fun until you’re one” concerns me as its simply not true. While food should look fun and be visually appealing, it needs to be so much more than that, it’s essential nutrition. This mini series has been created to dive a bit more deeply into each of the Critical Nutrients so that you can appreciate exactly why they are so important for your baby. This article is all about iron.
Your baby is born with a store of iron that came from your body during the last trimester of pregnancy. This stored iron is used for the very rapid brain developments which occur during the first few months after birth. However, it does run out and this can happen sooner if your baby was small or born early and didn’t have the full 3rd trimester to gain her stores. Also, if you were iron deficient when pregnant, or smoked or were very overweight during your pregnancy, your baby may not have been born with the full quota either. A recommendation has been made for delayed cord clamping after delivery so that the iron stores for all babies is maximised.
Why is iron so important?
Iron is needed for the formation of red blood cells, the cells that carry oxygen to your baby’s brain. Without enough oxygen your baby’s brain can’t develop to its full potential and we know that babies who are iron deficient can grow up to have lower IQ scores, find it difficult concentrating at school and even have behavioural problems. Muscle and co-ordination problems can occur as well as cognitive impairment.
Unfortunately, iron deficiency during weaning and the toddler years is the most common nutritional deficiency and its probably related to poor food intake. Breastmilk contains only a small amount of iron, whereas infant formula is fortified with quite a lot but iron in a supplemental form isn’t absorbed very well at all.
By 6 months of age, there really isn’t very much of the stored iron left, at the same time your baby is growing rapidly and needs even more iron than before and the only way your baby can get it is from her diet.
Which foods are best for iron?
Undoubtedly the best form of iron is what is naturally present in red meat. This is because it’s in a form that’s very easily absorbed by your baby’s body. Red meat such as beef, lamb, pork or liver contains more iron than white meat does, however dark poultry meat such as a chicken thigh or leg contains iron too.
Iron is also found in plant foods like beans, peas, lentils and green leafy vegetables but because it’s bound to plant matter it’s hard for your baby’s body to access it. There is a trick though, if you serve a non-meat source of iron alongside a vitamin C rich food, the absorption rate increases.
Good sources of iron and how to serve them:
- Beef, lamb – slow cook and offer as strips or puree with root vegetables or make into mini burgers
- Pork, dark poultry meat – make excellent meatballs – just the right size for little hands
- Liver as a casserole or pate – but limit to once a week as liver is very high in vitamin A
- Beans, lentils and pulses – homemade baked beans, lentil croquettes, stews, hummus or mini bean burgers
- Egg – the yolks contain the iron – try scrambled or strips of omelette
- Tofu – silken tofu as a puree or marinate and bake chunks of block tofu
- Dried Fruits – apricots, figs, sultanas, prunes and raisins – delicious in a baked apple with a pinch of cinnamon!
- Wholegrain cereals such as brown rice and pasta and wholemeal bread.
- Fortified breakfast cereals – check for iron on the food label – good, sugar free ones are Weetabix and Ready Brek
- Green vegetables – green beans, okra, peas, spinach – lightly cooked, steamed or sautéed
- Nut butters such as peanut or almond butter spread on toast.
Vitamin C rich foods to help non-meat iron absorption are:
Iron is also found in small amounts in lots of different foods and over the course of a day these add up, so the key is to have a wide, diverse weaning diet, so lots of different foods, every day – variety really is key. Weaning starts with vegetables and fruits but because these don’t contain much iron it’s important to progress onto iron rich foods as soon as first tastes are accepted which should be around 6.5 to 7 months of age.
Are there any foods which can hinder iron?
Babies who love their milk can sometimes not achieve adequate iron because they are too full to eat a decent quantity of food at mealtimes. At the start of weaning your babies milk intake should be around the same as always has been but by 7 months of age your baby really ought to be on 3 meals a day and her milk feeds spaced out in between. As a rough guide a mid-morning feed, a mid-afternoon feed and a bedtime feed are usually adequate in between breakfast, lunch and dinner, and if your formula feeding this should equate to around 600ml (or 21 fl oz) per day. By 10 months this should be lower again at around 400ml/day (or 14 fl oz). Sometimes babies who love their milk need a little encouragement from you in order to reduce their feeds so that their food intake can increase.
Does the type of weaning matter?
If you chose baby-led weaning, your baby is at a greater risk of not consuming enough iron. This is because it is difficult to eat iron rich foods independently. Babies who are fed traditionally with purees can be given iron rich foods in a form they can manage easily and the sheer act of spoon-feeding means that there is a greater chance that food is swallowed. However, with careful planning and a strong focus on including iron rich foods at every meal babies-led weaners can be offered the same amount of iron rich foods as traditional weaners, the difficulty being is whether those foods are eaten or not.
How should I cook meat to make it easy for my baby to eat?
Cooking doesn’t affect the iron level in food but it can affect how easily your baby eats it. If you are baby-led weaning, slow cooking finger sized pieces of beef or lamb over several hours can make it tender enough for your baby to manage, similarly slow cooked meats puree well with softened vegetables such as carrot or sweet potato. Minced beef, pork or turkey can be shaped into burgers or meatballs and are also easy to eat.
Are shop bought pouches and jars any better?
Unfortunately not, because iron rich foods such as meat are a relatively expensive ingredient, manufacturers tend to use as little as legally possible which can be as low as 9% of the ingredients. This won’t provide enough iron for your baby and so pouches and jars are not really nutritionally adequate meals. Home cooking is by far the best way to ensure good nutrition.
How do I plan my baby’s diet to make sure it’s nutritionally balanced?
From 7 months of age, your baby should be having 3 meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal needs to be made up of the following:
- A protein food – rich in iron if you can
- A vitamin C rich food
- An energy provider – rich in iron if you can
So, for breakfast your iron rich protein food may be scrambled eggs, your vitamin C rich food may be 3 raspberries and your energy provider may be buttered toast. Likewise it could be porridge (energy and iron) made with milk (protein) and blueberries (vitamin C).
For lunch this could look like – Chopped dark chicken meat (iron rich protein food), a steamed broccoli floret (vitamin C rich food) and some pasta twists tossed in cheese sauce (for your energy food).
Dinner could be a lentil and sweet potato casserole – lentils are your iron rich protein food, sweet potato is your energy provider as well as your vitamin C provider and you could give some additional vitamin C in the form of a banana for dessert.
Check out the meal planners in Annabel’s Weaning book as these have all been balanced to provide iron throughout the day.