This post was inspired by numerous discussions on Baby Led Weaning (BLW) blogs and forums where some parents are looking for ways to introduce more iron-rich foods to their babies. Most BLW foods, especially in the first few weeks, are fruits and vegetables, which, although healthful and nutritious, are also low in iron.
Who is at a risk for iron deficiency?
Most babies are born with a store of iron to last them for the first 4-6 months. After that, iron starts to run out. If a baby was born prematurely she may not have spent enough time in the womb to accumulate enough iron in her body. This means that she may run out of her “stash” earlier than a full-term baby. In this case, an iron supplement prescribed by a doctor may help meet the nutritional needs.
Also, if a mom entered her pregnancy with depleted iron stores, there is not much she can share with the baby to start with, which can also put the baby at a risk for low iron status.
It is estimated that iron deficiency affects about 7% of children between 1 and 2 years of age living in the US. This number is much smaller than the number of children affected by iron deficiency in developing countries but is still a concern. In fact, in 2010 AAP issued a recommendation for universal screening for iron deficiency at 12 months of age.
The best baby food sources of iron are pureed meat and fortified cereals. Neither is a typical choice for BLW babies. That’s why experts and researchers here and here are wondering whether BLW babies can get enough iron, especially in the first weeks of starting solids when they are not actually chewing and swallowing that much.
Why is iron important?
Iron helps supply oxygen to cells and is especially important during periods of rapid growth. It also plays a vital role in brain development. Iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia in small children may lead to cognitive issues and low immunity many years later.
How can a baby get enough iron?
Babies from 6 to 12 months need 11 mg of iron a day. This requirement is very high because they are going through a period of very rapid growth at this time.
The good news is that you do not need to worry about your baby’s iron status if your baby is full-term, your doctor is not concerned and you are just starting solids at 6-7 months. Although breastmilk is low in iron, its bioavailability is pretty high. And the formula is fortified with enough iron to support your baby’s growth and development until 12 months when you are ready to switch to cow’s milk.
But be aware that after a few weeks of starting solids your baby will start drinking less breast milk or formula and eating more solids, so the nutrition from solid foods will be becoming more and more important every day.
Because of this, it makes sense to introduce at least a few iron-rich foods from early on, so when your baby is ready to cut down on milk or formula, his iron intake is not affected.
When planning meals for the baby, it helps to remember that not all iron is absorbed equally well. Iron from heme/animal sources (e.g. meat) is absorbed better than iron from non-heme/plant sources (e.g. beans or fortified foods).
But there is no need to do lots of complicated calculations to find out how much iron exactly your baby is getting or absorbing from formula/breast milk and solids. Instead, focus on serving some iron-rich solid foods to your baby at least twice a day.
If you would like to get the whole framework and all the steps to start your baby on solids using the mixed approach, check my Stress-Free Solids program – it’s completely online and has videos of babies eating both finger foods and purees, in addition to recipes, nutrition guides, schedules and the latest scientific advice on introducing allergens.
Best sources of iron:
- red meat
- egg yolk
- dark chicken meat
- iron-fortified cereal
- sesame seeds
- green leafy vegetables.
Best ways to help your baby absorb more iron:
1/ Combine iron-rich food with fruit and vegetables high in vitamin C (e.g.: meatballs and tomato sauce)
2/ Include both animal/heme and plant/non-heme sources of iron in the same meal (e.g.. beans and sausage)
3/ Limit dairy in iron-rich meals. Calcium inhibits the absorption of iron. (eg. skip the cheese on meatballs with tomato sauce )
Iron-rich finger foods for a 6-month-old BLW baby
Here are some finger foods your baby can self-feed using his whole hand (palm grasp). This is how babies typically start self-feeding from 6-7 months.
1. Toast sticks with sesame paste (tahini) spread
Make sure to spread the tahini very thinly. Seed and nut butter lumps are a choking hazard.
1/2 oz of tahini = 1.2 mg iron
1/2 slice of fortified bread, cut into two sticks = 0.5 mg iron
2. Egg omelet, cut into strips, served with tomato sauce
Tomato sauce contains plenty of vitamin C. Just make sure to choose a low sodium version for your baby. Or make your own by cooking on a low heat some canned chopped tomatoes, chopped onions, garlic and herbs.
Cook an omelet on the small skillet, cut it into graspable strips and serve to your baby.
1 egg = 0.5 mg iron (in the yolk)
Bonus: better iron absorption due to the vitamin C in tomato sauce
3. Toast sticks dipped into a soft boiled egg yolk
To make a perfect soft-boiled egg, bring some water to a boil in a pot, lower eggs carefully one by one and cook for 5-7 minutes. Remove the eggs from the pot and cool under cold running water. Remove the top and help your baby dip a toast finger and suck off the nutritious yolk. (He may need some help with the dipping). Choose salmonella-free eggs with the Lion Stamp (UK) or pasteurized eggs if you are in the US.
1 egg yolk = 0.5 mg iron
1/2 slice of toast = 0.5 mg iron
4. White bean, lemon and olive oil mash/hummus
Mash 1/2 cup of cooked or canned and rinsed beans with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice and olive oil each. Thin with water until it is the consistency of hummus. Let your baby go messy self-feeding with his fingers or preload a spoon and give it to him.
2 tablespoons of white bean hummus – 2mg of iron
Bonus: better iron absorption due to the vitamin C in lemon juice.
5. Sautéed spinach with lemon juice.
Sauté 1 cup of baby spinach in 1 teaspoon of olive oil until wilted and very soft. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of lemon juice. Chop in smaller bites to get rid of bigger pieces that may be a challenge for the baby to handle. Let your baby self feed with his hands. Have a camera ready for some green-faced cuteness :).
1 cut raw spinach – 1 mg iron
Bonus: better iron absorption due to the vitamin C in lemon juice.
6. Fortified cereal sprinkled on finger foods
Even if you avoid spoon-feeding your baby, there is a way to use its nutritional benefit from iron fortification. Sprinkle some cereal on slippery finger foods like ripe pear, banana, mango or avocado. This will not only boost iron but also make it easier for the baby to grab and hold the food.
1 tablespoon of baby cereal – 1.2 mg iron
Bonus: better iron absorption due to the vitamin C in fruit and vegetable finger foods
7. Roasted chicken drumstick
Chicken drumstick has a perfect handle for self-feeding and is higher in iron than chicken breast. Your baby may not be able to bite off and chew any of the meat yet but will have lots of fun sucking and gnawing.
1 oz of chicken drumstick- 0.4 mg iron
Other iron-rich foods for your baby at this stage: strips of braised beef, slices of iron-fortified tofu, fortified pasta, broccoli, large flakes of cooked fish.
Iron-rich foods for an older baby
At 8-10 months most babies can use their fingers to pick up smaller pieces of food. They also get better at chewing and swallowing. At this point, including iron-rich food in their diets becomes easier.
Some iron-rich options to add to your baby’s diet at 8-10 months:
- Cooked ground meat, e.g. beef, lamb and pork
- Cooked meat or chicken cut into small cubes
- Scrambled eggs
- Cooked or canned and rinsed whole beans
- Pieces of cooked fish
- Green peas
- Canned low sodium sardines
- Iron-fortified cheerios
As you can see, with a little strategic planning it is easy to make sure your baby is getting enough iron even if you avoid purees altogether.
Which iron-rich foods does your baby enjoy? Tell me in the comments.