Is your baby’s diet sufficient to meet all his iron requirements?

Is your baby’s diet sufficient to meet all his iron requirements?

Iron is an essential nutrient that ensures smooth gastrointestinal functioning, provides energy, ensures mental alertness, and even enhances the immune system of the body. However, iron deficiency is a very common problem in Indian children and infants. This might make you wonder if the amount of iron that is being absorbed by your baby from his or her diet is enough or not. Read on to understand more.

Importance of iron

  • Iron is a vital mineral which is needed for the proper growth and development of your child.
  • Iron is used to make haemoglobin, which carries oxygen to all parts of the body. This mineral is also used to make myoglobin that carries oxygen to the muscles.
  • Iron plays an important role in the formation of certain hormones.

Iron deficiency in babies

Deficiency of iron causes anaemia. The prevalence of anaemia in children is above 70% in large parts of India and Asia. This is the most seen single nutrient deficiency among children in developing countries. Even in industrialized nations, iron deficiency or anaemia is very common among kids.

Causes of iron deficiency or anaemia

  • Infants can become iron deficient if they do not consume enough iron-enriched complementary foods and are mostly dependent on milk. The most common cause of iron deficiency in children is the inadequacy of iron in their diet.
  • Sometimes, the amount of iron in foods may be low, or the child might have a gastrointestinal disease that prevents the absorption of iron. Most of the times though, lower intake of iron-rich foods is the reason.
  • Another reason for the deficiency might be that, iron rich foods when consumed without absorption enhancers, can prevent the complete utilization of iron by the body.
  • Also, kids usually grow rapidly between six months and three years of age and their intake might not meet the demand.

Types of iron

Iron in foods comes in two types, heme iron and non-heme iron. Meat, seafood and poultry have both heme and non-heme iron in them. Plant foods and iron-fortified foods contain only non-heme iron. The body absorbs iron from non-heme containing plant sources only when these sources are paired with meat, poultry, seafood, or foods rich in vitamin C like citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes and broccoli.

Recommendations and tips for iron supply

  • Preterm infants who are breastfed need supplements like elemental iron of 2 mg/kg, from the time of birth till they reach 1 year of age.
  • Even formula-fed infants may need an additional iron supplement.
  • Exclusively breastfed term infants should be given iron supplement of 46mcg/kg/day until they reach 6 months of age and start eating complementary foods. The same goes for partially-breastfed infants who have not started complementary foods and receive more than one half of their daily feeds from breast milk.
  • The iron intake for infants aged between 6 and 12 months should be 5 mg / day. When they are started on complementary foods, rich iron sources like red meat and vegetables should be introduced as soon as possible. If the kid does not meet his iron needs through food, liquid iron can be provided as supplement.
  • The iron requirement per day for a child of 1-3 years of age is 9 mg. At this age, iron stores should be replenished through food, by combining heme iron from animal foods and non-heme iron from plant foods, along with fruits containing vitamin C.
  • If your baby follows a vegetarian diet, he or she will need twice the amount of iron than what a baby following a non-vegetarian diet needs. This is because the body does not absorb the heme iron present in plant-based foods as much as the non-heme iron present in animal foods.

Food sources of iron for babies

  • Sources of iron for babies are white beans, lentils, spinach, kidney beans, peas, nuts and dried fruits like raisins.
  • In developing countries, foods that are fortified with iron are corn flour, soya sauce, fish sauce and rice. In India, double fortified salts (fortified with both iron and iodine) have proven to be effective.
  • Soy and some cereals containing phytates can reduce iron absorption.
  • Tannins in tea and coffee can also reduce iron absorption.

Iron supplementation for babies

If your baby is a fussy eater and does not eat enough to meet his or her iron requirements, then supplementation can be considered after consultation with the doctor. This can be given in the form of iron sulphate drops or chewable iron tablets. Iron is present in most multivitamin-mineral supplements too. In the supplemental form, it is found as ferrous sulphate, ferrous gluconate, ferric citrate or ferric sulphate.

Wrapping up

The three main reasons for iron deficiency in children are poor bioavailability of the iron consumed, insufficient intake of iron as compared to the body’s needs, and increased iron requirement due to rapid growth during infancy and early childhood. If the child is not able to meet the body’s iron requirements through his diet, it is important to consider other recommendations and supplements for your little one.