Iron is an important nutrient for growth and development. During the first two years of life, when the brain is growing at an accelerated rate, iron is critical. Deficiencies of iron at this crucial time may cause adverse effects in brain development. Fourteen percent of children under age two, and 4 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds are iron-deficient, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most infants receive adequate iron through breast milk or iron-fortified infant formula in their first four months of life. Thereafter, iron can be obtained through an iron supplement in the amount of 1 milligram per kilogram of body weight for breastfed infants, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
During the second six months of life (6–12 months), iron requirements jump up to 11 mg per day, which is right around the time most children begin eating solid food. Iron-rich foods that are introduced at this time are paramount. From 1-3 years old, iron needs drop down to 7 mg per day; at 4-8 years, children need 10 mg each day. The truth is, iron will always be important for your child, even in adulthood.
Here are 4 ways to make sure your child is getting enough iron:
- Choose naturally rich sources of iron—Heme iron sources are those found in animals, like beef and chicken, and is easily absorbed and utilized by the body. Non-heme sources of iron come from plant sources like beans and raisins and are best absorbed by the body when foods containing vitamin C or meat are present.
- Bet on fortified foods—Some foods, like iron-fortified infant formula, baby cereal, or ready-to-eat cereals are fortified with iron, meaning iron is added to the food product, making them a good source of iron for your child.
- Use iron absorption helpers like vitamin C—When offering your child non-heme sources of iron, include a vitamin C iron source. Iron will be easier to absorb and use in the body. For example, pair up beans with tomatoes or serve cereal along with orange juice.
- Max on the power of the “meat factor”—Research shows that when non-heme sources of iron are mixed with meat, more iron is absorbed overall. Researchers call this the “meat factor.” Bottom line: if you offer a plant-based source of iron, like spinach, enhance the absorption of iron with a serving of meat.
- Iron is a critical nutrient in growth and development, especially in the first two years of life when the brain is growing at a fast pace.
- Offer a variety of iron-rich foods, including animal and plant sources.
- Iron-fortified foods and vitamin C together promote optimal absorption of iron.