Iron and Your Baby
During your pregnancy you provided everything your baby needed – a warm, comfortable place to grow, and nourishment whenever it was required. Iron was essential for you and your baby then, and it continues to be vital for the healthy development of your baby now.
Not having enough iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, and can lead to iron deficiency and ultimately to iron deficiency anaemia. It can affect anyone, and children up to the age of 5 are the mostly likely to be affected.1 Their iron needs are so much greater than an adult’s because, as you soon realise, they grow so fast. They also don’t eat large amounts, so what they do eat has to be nutrient rich – especially in iron.2
There are some things that mean your baby is more likely to have low iron levels, or develop iron deficiency anaemia:
- If you were iron deficient during your pregnancy
- If you smoked during your pregnancy
- If you have diabetes
- If your baby was premature
- If you exclusively breastfeed for more than 4-6 months3
Iron and the First Six Months
In the last trimester of your pregnancy your baby had a chance to store iron. After birth, it uses this iron to allow it to keep growing. These stores are vital because there is not much iron in breastmilk,4 and your baby’s gut is still developing so is not ready to absorb iron from food.5 After 4-6 months your baby will have used up its stores of iron, so it will need to start getting iron from its diet.6
If your baby was delivered early they may not have had as much time to store iron before they were born as they needed.6 Also, if you were iron deficient during the last trimester of your pregnancy you may want to talk to your doctor about suitable supplements for your baby, especially if you are breastfeeding.
Iron for Growth
There are several things we think of when we think of babies; nappies, crying – and growing. Your doctor and midwife will keep an eye on your baby’s growth as it shows them that your baby is healthy and getting the nutrients it needs.
At around 4-6 months your baby’s iron stores run down, and the amount of iron it needs to get from its diet increases to 11 mg per day.6 When they turn one their growth slows down a bit, so their need for iron drops to 7 mg per day.6 In comparison, an adult man needs 8 mg per day, and an adult female who is not pregnant needs 18 mg per day (due to her periods).7
Iron for Learning and Behavior
Not only is your baby growing out of their clothes faster than you can buy them, their brains are also growing and developing at an amazing rate. Your baby will be learning to recognise you, smile at you, roll over, and learning how to put food (and plenty of other objects) in their mouths.
All this learning means your baby’s brain is growing so fast that it doubles in size in the first year, and is almost the size of an adult brain by the time they are two.5 As the brain develops it is essential it has all the iron it needs. The part of the brain important for learning and memory, called the hippocampus, is very sensitive to low iron levels as it grows, and not having enough iron can prevent it from developing properly.5
Being iron deficient as the brain is growing can affect many areas of your child’s development, including hand/eye coordination, social and emotional skills, and IQ.2 Low iron can also affect how quickly your baby learns to recognise your face or tell your voice from a stranger’s.5
Some of the effects of iron deficiency can be fixed by getting your child’s iron levels back up to normal. However, some effects can be long-lasting.2 Making sure your child has enough iron from now on, and plenty of opportunities for learning, will help to give them the best start in life.8
Iron is essential whenever your kids are growing fast. To learn more about why iron is important during the teenage years click here see our “Time Flies” section.
Too much iron can also be harmful to your baby so make sure you talk to your doctor before giving them a supplement.