Thinking about Baby Led Weaning for your bub, but worried about them getting enough iron? Read on for a nutritionist’s view…
We know that iron is important, after all it helps with cognitive development and building a strong immune system. But one of the biggest concerns parents have when introducing solids is whether bubs will get enough iron. Especially when doing Baby Led Weaning (BLW). But can BLW provide enough iron? The short answer is ‘yes it can’. Here’s how…
Yes, it’s true that babies have an increased requirement for iron once they reach 6 months. Their own iron stores, built up during the late stages of pregnancy, have started to run low. This doesn’t happen overnight, but from around 6 months their needs do increase. Although there is iron in breastmilk, it is a smaller amount than that found in formula. However, it is much more highly absorbed – around 50% absorbed vs 10% . So, all babies still receive some iron from their breastmilk and formula, but from 6 months they need a little extra from the foods you introduce to them – which is why solids are also known as ‘complimentary foods’.
But how much do they need, and where should they get it from to ensure they get enough?
Not every baby is the same.
It’s important to remember this, and it is as relevant for iron levels as it is for hitting milestones. Just like the variations from baby to baby in how many teeth they have at 6 months and what age they start sitting unassisted, their needs for iron vary too. This depends on things like their mother’s iron status before and especially during pregnancy (and afterwards if breastfed); if they have been formula fed (as formula is fortified to varying degrees); if they were born prematurely; and if they had a low birth weight.
Is your baby getting enough iron?
Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anaemia (IDA) is a concern for parents, as iron is a critical nutrient for brain development and IDA could lead to poor neurodevelopment . But did you know that excess iron may have an adverse effect on growth? So, it is important to be like Goldilocks and find the amount that is ‘just right’ – don’t feel you need to jump straight to supplementation.
The babies at risk of IDA are those who were born prematurely (since babies’ iron stores build in the last few months of pregnancy), those with a low birth weight even if born full-term, and those whose mothers had very low iron or poor nutritional status during pregnancy. For these babies, I would recommend parents speak to their GP/paediatrician for advice specific to their circumstances.
So, how much iron does a full-term, healthy-weight baby need?
The average iron intake from age 0-6 months is 0.2 mg/day (based on breastmilk consumption). The estimated average requirement from age 7-12 months is 7 mg/day, whilst the recommended daily intake is 11 mg/day , which equates to 500g of lean beef mince! Whilst their requirement doesn’t make this huge jump overnight, it is a big increase to work up to as quickly as possible. Which is why it is important to include as many iron-rich foods throughout the day as possible, and BLW is a great way to do this.
The best sources of iron for BLW.
If you’ve decided to skip the iron-fortified baby cereal (which has low absorption rates anyway), you may be wondering where their iron is going to come from now. The top sources of iron [4, 5] are:
- Meats: beef, lamb, pork, veal, liver (including pate), chicken, turkey – strips that they can hold and suck on are a great place to start, as well as softly cooked mince and slow cooked meats. Fish is also a good option – tuna, sardines, salmon etc.
- Eggs: egg yolk is high in iron, but serve whole so baby receives the whole nutrition from the egg – serve scrambled, medium-boiled and sliced lengthways, or omelette strips.
- Vegetables: potato, sweet potato, broccoli, brussels sprouts, green peas, beans, spinach*.
- Nuts & seeds: almonds and cashews (as nut butters, not whole due to their choking risk!), sesame seeds (in the form of tahini – try baking veggies in a coating of tahini mixed with a little water).
- Legumes: kidney beans, black beans, butter/lima beans, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas – cooked until softened so easier to digest; a great tool to practice that pincer grip! Natural peanut butter is another good source.
- Other: hummus, blackstrap molasses, quinoa, tofu – great sources of iron.
*Spinach is high in oxalic acid so, to err on the side of caution, wait until 8-10 months before introducing spinach to your baby. Oxalic acid reduces the absorption of iron, but can be reduced by cooking, so serve spinach cooked not raw. It is unclear whether baby spinach has lower oxalic acid levels than mature spinach, so again, best to serve it cooked, and in small quantities, until baby is older (8 months plus).
What does 7mg of Iron per day look like?
Whilst I don’t believe in stressing about numbers, it’s useful to know that we are aiming for at least 7 mg per day and what this might look like in food terms: one egg, two tablespoons of beef mince, one tablespoon of kidney beans, one tablespoon of almond butter, one tablespoon of hummus, half a cup of potato, half a cup of broccoli, and one tablespoon of tahini. It’s a lot of food, but remember this is an average requirement for ages 7-12-month olds – 12-month olds will need more iron and food than 7-month olds so you will work up to this amount gradually. The great news is that babies progress very quickly to consuming a fair amount of food with BLW.
My 4 simple tips on getting enough iron into your bubs (6-12 months).
Continue providing adequate breastmilk or formula as baby’s main source of nutrients. At this age, solids are complimentary foods used to boost baby’s nutrient intake, and to gradually get their digestive system ready to transition completely to solids.
Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods, as this vitamin enhances the absorption of non-haem iron (especially in legumes) into the body. Breastmilk provides vitamin C, but so too do capsicums, tomatoes, broccoli, citrus fruit and berries, as well as other fruits. Beef mince in a tomato-based sauce is a perfect combo.
Ensure every meal includes some iron-rich foods right from the start – including meat, egg, legumes or nuts ensures a good source of protein too.
Avoid calcium-rich foods at the same time as iron-rich foods, as this inhibits the uptake of iron. A sprinkle of grated cheese is probably not going to have a significant impact, but a glass of milk with dinner is not a good idea (not to mention it will fill them up too much to eat their dinner!). Same goes for adults – ditch the cup of tea or coffee with your meal, as the polyphenols inhibit the iron uptake.
For more tips on introducing solids, as well as other early childhood nutrition, check out more of my blog posts where I’ll be adding more over the coming months!
Who am I and what do I know? I’m The Real Nutritionist (aka Lucy), a qualified nutritionist, with a special interest in early childhood nutrition – from introducing solids, through to the preschool age. And I’ve had some hands-on experience too. With a 2-and-a-half-year-old who baby-led weaned, and an 8-month-old who is currently baby-led weaning, I’ve cleaned up my fair share of food-splattered floors!