It has been drummed into us that babies need to start solids, specifically fortified rice cereal, by the age of 6 months in order for them to top up their iron stores. Human breast-milk is low in iron, so it is true that iron stores will get depleted if that is all that is eaten. What isn’t true is that fortified rice cereal is the best way to top them up. Did your baby start solids and magically and suddenly get constipated? That’s because the form of iron that cereal is fortified with is the same as in cheap iron supplements, notorious for making adults constipated. I made the mistake of giving my first child rice cereal, and watched the discomfort she went through with constipation straight away. With my next two children, I skipped the rice cereal, and the constipation.
Why do we need iron?
Iron is a trace mineral that we need to make red blood cells. These cells transport oxygen around our body.
Children need iron to keep their immune systems strong, to help them grow, and for brain development. If they don’t get enough iron, they can be pale and listless, and have lower energy levels than their friends.
They can also get headaches and be breathless when they run around.
Not having enough iron can reduce your appetite, making it a vicious cycle.
Iron deficiency is also linked to restless legs.
What clues are there that my child might be low in iron?
- Your child really, really, likes to eat ice
- Your child is very sensitive to the cold
- You child is very prone to infections
- You child gets tired very easily, or lacks energy
- You child has very brittle fingernails
- Your child has a swollen tongue
These might prompt you to get a blood test done, by your GP or Nutritionist.
What types of iron are there?
There are two different type of iron – haem and non-haem.
Haem iron will come from animal products.
Non-haem comes from plants, animals and supplements.
Haem iron is the type that the body can most easily use. Non-haem iron is poorly absorbed, but eating with vitamin C can improve absorption.
About half the iron in meat is haem, and the rest is non-haem, so it is good to have vitamin C when eating meat.
How can I get iron from my food?
Haem sources include:
- Liver and other organ meats
- Red meat
Non-haem sources include:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Tomato paste
- Dried apricots
- Sesame seeds
As you can see, it is much easier to get the iron from the haem sources than the non-haem sources. If you are bringing your child up to be vegetarian or vegan, you will need to carefully construct each day’s menu to ensure a good intake of iron.
If your child is on reflux medication, you need to work extra hard to make sure they get enough iron. This medication will reduce the absorption of iron.
Too much iron can be as bad as too little, and some people are genetically programmed to hang on to too much iron. That’s why you should never supplement iron without having a blood test to check levels first.
Luckily, it is hard to overdose on iron when you are just eating food. The body is clever enough to absorb more iron when your stores are low, and absorb less iron when your stores are sufficient.