Iron and Your Child: How Much is Needed?
Your body needs iron to make red blood cells. Healthy infants are born with enough iron to last for about six months. After that, they need iron from what they eat. Human breast milk is an excellent source of iron for babies.
Infants ages 7 to 12 months old need 11 mg of iron per day. Children ages 1 to 3 years old need 7 mg per day, while those ages 4 to 8 years of age need 10 mg of iron per day.
Babies can absorb the iron in breast milk and formula, but not the iron naturally found in cow’s milk. When they are first introduced to foods, infants can get the nutrition they need from breast milk, or iron-rich baby cereal mixed with formula.
Iron is found naturally in animal sources in a form that is easily absorbed, called heme iron. Red meat has heme iron, as well as chicken, fish, clams, and shellfish. Iron from plants is usually in “non- heme” form, which makes it harder to absorb. Beans, soy, and foods made from soy (like tofu) have non-heme iron, as well as raisins, spinach, and molasses. Some of these foods are not appropriate for babies and young children; even older children will not eat some without protest. However, a diet containing enriched cereals, protein from meats, and a variety of fruits and vegetables will usually supply plenty of iron.
Baby foods, like cereal, are iron-enriched, just as they are calcium-enriched. Cereals for children are usually also enriched. One serving of an iron-enriched cereal, like Cheerios, may have 10.32 mg of iron.
Children who eat a normal diet should not need extra iron. Most of the iron in the body is inside red blood cells, which are recycled. Giving a child supplemental iron in addition to what is in food is not recommended. Too much iron is not healthy.
Vegetarians do need to make sure their children’s diets have enough iron. This can be done with the right combinations of foods.
Iron is needed for children ages six months to five years. Children between these ages can usually get these nutrients from a normal, healthy diet containing a variety of foods that either contain iron naturally, or are enriched with iron. The only reason to supplement these vitamins is if a child is unable to eat a regular diet; for example, a child with severe food allergies, celiac disease, or some kind of chronic illness causing a loss of nutrients.
If you have any reason to suspect your child is not getting enough iron, you should let a doctor evaluate him or her.