When it comes to finally introducing iron-rich foods to your vegetarian or vegan baby, tons of questions may pop to mind.
For instance, what foods to start with? Or how to make sure they’re suited for your baby? And are supplements needed?
This article will discuss iron-rich plant foods for your vegetarian or vegan baby, and show you how to make sure your little one gets enough of this important nutrient.
What happens if my baby doesn’t get enough iron?
You may have heard the saying “foods before one are just for fun” and although this phrase is very catchy –– and probably meant to reduce stress levels around food –– it’s unfortunately not true.
What you feed your baby starting from around 6 month of age can have a great impact on its nutrition status, which, in turn can have repercussions on growth and development.
This is definitely the case with iron –– a mineral used to make red blood cells, DNA, and which is needed to carry oxygen through the blood (1).
Effects or iron deficiency or anemia
A baby offered a diet that’s too low in iron can develop an iron deficiency, which, when left untreated, can progress to anemia.
Iron deficiency and anemia in infants and children can weaken their immune systems and delay motor development.
It can also affect your baby’s brain development which can result in delayed attention, social withdrawal, and learning difficulties.
What’s especially worrisome is that some of these effects might be irreversible. So it’s really worth investing time and effort in ensuring that your baby gets enough iron from the foods he or she eats (2).
In sum A diet that’s too low in iron can cause your baby to develop iron deficiency or anemia, which can lead to sometimes irreversible delays in motor and brain development.
At what age do babies need more iron?
Iron requirements are highest between 6 months and 3 years of age, to support your baby’s rapid growth.
Babies are generally born with iron stores large enough to cover their needs for approximately the first six months of life.
However, the size of their stores can be influenced by factors such as mom’s iron status during pregnancy, the baby’s gestational age at birth and whether the clamping of the umbilical chord was delayed or not (3).
Based on these factors, some babies’ iron stores may run out a little before or after the six months mark.
To be on the safe side, iron-rich foods should be offered as soon as foods are introduced.
In sum Most babies are born with iron stores large enough to cover their needs in the first 6 months of life. Iron-rich foods should be offered shortly after 6 months, as soon as solids are introduced.
Which babies are most at risk of iron deficiency
Babies born to mothers who had an iron deficiency during pregnancy may be at an increased risk of iron deficiency (4).
This is especially true for mothers with insufficient iron levels in their last trimesters, as this is the time during which most of your baby’s iron stores are built.
So are babies born prematurely, with low-birth weights or who didn’t benefit from delayed chord clamping –– which refers to clamping the umbilical chord only once it has stopped pulsating –– may be at higher risk (2).
In sum Babies born to mothers that were iron-deficient during pregnancy, who were born prematurely or with low birth weights or without delayed chord clamping are at highest risk of iron deficiency.
Can breastfeeding lead to iron-deficiency?
The iron found in breastmilk is designed to be easily absorbed by your baby’s immature gut (3).
Exclusively breastfeeding for longer than 6 months appears to increase some babies’ risk of developing iron-deficiency anemia (11).
In sum Continuing to exclusively breastfeed past 6 months of age may increase the risk of iron deficiency in some babies.
What are the symptoms of iron deficiency in babies?
Symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, weakness, loss of appetite, pale skin, headaches, lightheadedness and cold hands or feet.
However, these symptoms may be difficult to notice in babies.
That’s why getting your baby’s iron status tested remains the best way to rule out an iron deficiency.
In sum Symptoms of iron deficiency are difficult to notice in babies. Getting your baby’s iron levels tested remains the best way to monitor your baby’s iron status.
How can I increase my baby’s iron levels?
Delayed chord clamping
If you’re currently pregnant, it’s worth noting that delayed chord clamping is an easy way to optimize the size of of your baby’s iron stores immediately after birth.
Allowing the umbilical chord to stop pulsating before clamping it allows iron-containing blood to travel from the placenta to the newborn baby, increasing its iron stores (12).
A Cochrane review –– a systematic review of the evidence performed by independent scientists –– further supports this practice by reporting that delayed chord clamping can increase iron stores in infants (3).
Maintain good iron levels throughout your pregnancy
Insufficient iron intake during pregnancy can also affect your baby’s iron status.
The bulk of your baby’s iron stores are built in the last trimester of pregnancy. Failing to maintain a good iron status at this time can reduce the size of the iron stores your baby is born with (2).
Iron requirements increase exponentially during pregnancy, and may be difficult to meet through diet alone –– whether you’re vegan or not (13).
So make sure to get your iron levels tested throughout your pregnancy and supplement accordingly.
Offer iron-rich baby foods
Check out the video below to discover which iron-rich foods to offer your vegetarian or vegan baby.
In sum Maintaining good iron levels during pregnancy, opting for delayed chord clamping and offering iron-rich plant foods as your baby’s first solids are good ways to increase your baby’s iron status.
How do I know if my baby is getting enough iron?
After all this talk about iron, you may be curious to find out how to tell whether your baby’s diet is rich enough in iron.
There are two ways to track this. First, you may track your baby’s food intake using a free online food journal such as Cronometer. This will allow you to check whether the daily targets are met.
A second way to track the adequacy of your baby’s diet is to talk to your paediatrician about getting your baby’s hemoglobin and ferritin levels tested –– good indicators of the iron levels in your baby’s blood and stores.
In sum Online food journals are a good way to track your baby’s iron intake. So is a blood test through your paediatrician.
How to boost iron absorption from plants
Iron from plant foods tends to be more difficult to absorb than the iron found in animal products.
Here are some ways to somewhat compensate for this:
- Offer more iron-rich foods: Offering higher amounts of iron than the recommended 8-11 mg per day can compensate for the decreased iron absorption from plant foods (14).
- Add foods rich in vitamin C: Combining iron-rich plant foods with foods rich in vitamin C may help boost iron absorption by up to 300% (15).
- Cook in a cast iron pan: Using cast iron cookware instead of teflon-coated pots and pans may increase the iron content of meals by up to 16% (16, 17).
- Soak, sprout or ferment grains and legumes: This reduces the anti-nutrients naturally in foods by 30-90%, and may increase iron absorption by up to 30% (18, 19, 20, 21).
- Combine iron-rich foods with a source of protein: There is some evidence that combining iron-rich foods with foods rich in protein may also promote iron absorption (22).
In sum The strategies above are some effective ways to boost iron absorption from plant foods.
Should I give my baby iron supplements?
Iron supplements can be very beneficial, when trying to reverse an iron-deficiency. However, offering iron supplements to your baby when not actually needed may do more harm than good.
For instance, high levels of iron can cause cell damage and reduce the absorption of other minerals in the gut (23).
Extremely high iron levels may cause convulsions, organ failure and, in extreme cases, lead to coma or death (24).
Therefore, before offering iron supplements to your baby, make sure they are truly needed by getting your healthcare provider to measure hemoglobin and ferritin levels in your baby’s blood.
To sum it up
Iron is a nutrient very important for your baby’s growth and development.
Making sure you offer enough iron-rich options as soon as foods are introduced can help your baby get enough iron from its diet and reduce the risk of iron deficiency.
Vegetarian and vegan babies may especially benefit from cooking and food combining techniques aimed at boosting iron absorption from plant foods.
I’d love to hear about what you do to make sure your little one gets enough iron each day. So if you are happy to share, I encourage you to do so in the comment section below.