Feeding and Weaning
There is so much going on after the birth of your baby it can all feel a bit of a haze. Whilst your body recovers from the delivery and prepares for breastfeeding, your baby also has to adjust to the big wide world. Instead of the continuous supply of nutrients it had in your womb, your baby needs to learn how to communicate its needs and you must learn how to meet them.
Pregnancy and delivery take a big toll on your iron stores and put you at risk of becoming iron deficient. Whilst your body is very efficient at reabsorbing the iron from blood cells no longer needed for the baby, 26% of women not taking iron supplements are iron deficient one week after giving birth.1,2 Iron deficiency can lead to a condition known as iron deficiency anaemia, where you have a reduced number of healthy red blood cells in your body.3 Iron deficiency therefore can affect the quality of the milk you make,4 but also your quality of life as a mum.2
Iron and Breastfeeding
Just like pregnancy and childbirth, your body is designed for you to breastfeed – but that does not mean it is easy. Successful breastfeeding depends on many different physical, emotional and social factors.5 You will need the support of your family to take on chores around the house and also to encourage you when things are tough. It will also help if they can provide you with lots of nutritious food, high in iron, to keep you and your baby healthy.
Having anaemia, which could be due to iron deficiency,6 increases your chance of suffering from insufficient milk syndrome. This can mean your baby doesn’t gain weight properly, is fussy, and wants to feed regularly. It can leave you feeling tense and unconfident in your ability to feed.5 It can also affect the fat and calorie content of your milk.4 As well as energy and nutrients, breast milk provides your baby with antibodies, which help protect them from infection.4 It may also be low in other substances that are needed for your baby’s immune system.4 All this can affect your experience of being a mother.
To produce the best milk possible and enjoy feeding your baby make sure you have enough iron. For more information on getting iron in your diet, you can see our section on “choosing your food wisely”.
Iron and Formula Feeding
Because formulas have iron added to them they are known as fortified with iron. This means if you are formula feeding your baby they are probably getting the iron they need. However, if your baby was small, or was delivered early, you might want to discuss a supplement with your doctor or midwife.
If you aren’t breastfeeding it is likely that your periods will start again and this can leave you at risk of developing iron deficiency. The amount of iron lost during your period is twice that needed for breastfeeding.7 Your body is also recovering from the blood loss during labour, so make sure you have a diet containing plenty of iron. You can use our Symptom Browser to check for signs of iron deficiency and if you think you may be suffering from low iron levels you should talk to your doctor. Being healthy and taking care of yourself will help you look after your baby.
Iron and Fatigue
Tiredness is a normal part of having a new baby, but it is worth noting if you begin to feel an extreme level of tiredness, also called fatigue. Fatigue is when you feel mentally and physically exhausted day after day, even if you have managed to get some rest.
Fatigue and exhaustion are often associated with iron deficiency8 and can have a big influence on your milk supply.7 You may also stop breastfeeding as much as you would like because you are simply too tired, and need someone to give your baby a bottle so that you can rest.5
Fatigue can impact on your ability to care for your baby even if you are not breastfeeding as it increases your chance of suffering from postnatal depression.9 To assess your level of fatigue you can fill in our Fatigue Survey. If you think you may have fatigue, it is important to speak to your doctor. You can use the results of the Fatigue Survey to help explain to your doctor how your fatigue is affecting your life. If your fatigue is due to iron deficiency, your doctor will be able to recommend treatments that may improve the level of tiredness that you are feeling.
Iron and Weaning
It won’t be long before your baby is reaching out for your biscuit and moving their mouth when you are eating. It might seem quick, but it is important that at 4-6 months old your baby starts to eat foods rich in iron.
Your baby was born with enough iron for it to grow for the first 4-6 months of life.10 There is not much iron in breast milk,11 so once these stores have run out, your baby needs iron in its diet. In developed countries just over 16% of babies under 1 year have iron deficiency anaemia, and 25% of 1-5 year olds do.12
Table: the amount of iron your baby needs in comparison with what an adult needs13:
|Age||Amount of Iron needed a day|
|6 - 12 months||11 mg|
|1 - 3 years||7 mg|
|Adult, non-pregnant woman||18 mg|
|Adult, male||8 mg|
If your baby was full-term and you are breastfeeding, it is recommended that, starting at 4 months, you give them an iron supplement of 1 MG for every kg they weigh every day, until they are eating enough iron-rich foods.10
Many foods for babies are fortified, especially cereals. However, it is also good to introduce foods that are naturally high in iron, such as red meat. Meat is not only an excellent source of iron, but also other vitamins and nutrients such as zinc.14 In one study, children in the UK who had meat in their diets showed greater development of physical skills than those without.14
It is also important that you do not give your baby normal cow’s milk before they are one, and only a small amount afterwards.15 This is for several different reasons. Cow’s milk does not contain much iron, so your baby is not getting the iron it would from fortified formulas. It can also upset your baby’s gut and cause them to have blood (which contains iron) in their stool. Some things help the absorption of iron (such as vitamin C) and others prevent it. Calcium is one of the things that prevents iron from being absorbed, and cow’s milk is high in calcium. All of this means that if your child has cow’s milk too early, or too much of it, it can cause them to become iron deficient.15 For more information on foods that are a good source of iron see our section on “choosing your foods wisely”.