When thinking about introducing iron-rich foods to your vegetarian or vegan baby, many questions may come to mind.
For instance, what iron-rich foods to offer first? Will these be enough to maintain optimal iron levels? And when is it a good idea to offer an iron supplement?
Some moms believe that foods before one are just for fun and that your baby will get enough iron from breastmilk or formula. Yet others insist that giving babies iron-rich foods from as early as 6 months is a must.
So what’s the lowdown on iron for vegetarian or vegan babies?
This article outlines everything you need to know.
What happens if my baby doesn’t eat enough iron-rich foods?
You may have heard the saying “foods before one are just for fun.” This phrase is very catchy and probably meant to reduce parents’ stress levels around food. However, it’s unfortunately not true.
What babies eat from around 6 months onwards can have a great impact on their nutrition status, growth and development.
Effects or iron deficiency or anemia
Iron is a mineral that our bodies require to make DNA, red blood cells, and carry oxygen through the blood (1).
A baby whose diet is too low in iron can develop an iron deficiency. When left untreated, this iron deficiency can progress to anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia is thought to weaken a child’s immune system and delay their motor development (2).
It may also affect the way in which your baby’s brain develops, potentially resulting in delayed attention, social withdrawal and learning difficulties.
What’s especially worrisome is that some of these effects may not be fully reversible. So it’s worth making sure that you offer your baby enough iron-rich foods from the get-go (2).
In sum A diet that’s too low in iron may cause your baby to develop iron deficiency anemia. This may result in delays in brain and motor development, some of which may not be fully reversible.
At what age do babies need more iron?
Proportionally to their size, babies need the most iron between 6 months and 3 years of age.
Most infants are born with iron stores large enough to last them for approximately the first six months of life.
The size of these iron stores can be influenced by various factors, such as (3):
- The mom’s iron levels during pregnancy
- Whether the baby was born to term
- Whether the clamping of the umbilical chord was delayed
Based on these factors, some babies’ iron stores may run out a little before or after the six months mark.
A baby born to term, to a mother with good iron levels and for whom the clamping of the umbilical chord was delayed will benefit most.
Delayed chord clamping consists of clamping the umbilical chord only once it has stopped pulsating. This allows it to transfer maximal amounts of iron-rich blood to the baby after they are born.
But it can be difficult to know the size of your baby’s iron stores without getting a blood tested. To stay on the safe side, it’s likely best to offer iron-rich foods starting from 6 months onwards.
That said, some babies may not be developmentally ready to start solids at 6 months. In such a case, consider discussing blood testing and iron supplementation with your baby’s healthcare provider.
In sum Most babies are born with enough iron to last them 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 were iron deficient during pregnancy may have an increased risk of iron deficiency (4).
Most of your baby’s iron stores are built in the third trimester. So having low iron levels in your third trimester may be particularly risky for your baby.
Premature birth, low birth weights and no delayed chord clamping also seem linked to higher risks of iron deficiency (2).
In sum Babies of iron-deficient mothers, born prematurely, with low birth weights, or no delayed chord clamping are at highest risk of iron deficiency.
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 levels 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.
Can breastfeeding lead to iron-deficiency?
Exclusively breastfeeding usually covers a baby’s iron needs for the first 6 months (3).
The iron in breastmilk is more easily absorbed by your baby’s gut than the iron found in foods.
Some mothers report exclusively breastfeeding their babies for up to one year, with no signs of iron deficiency. And while this may be the case for some, most didn’t actually test their baby’s iron levels.
Again, the signs of iron deficiency can be difficult to spot in babies. So a blood test is required to diagnose it.
I’m definitely a proponent of exclusively breastfeeding when possible. But this will only provide your baby with around 0.27 mg of iron per day. This amount is typically sufficient for the first few months of life (2, 3).
So despite the iron in breastmilk being more easy to absorb than the iron found in foods, research suggests it may not be enough to bridge this large gap (11).
While breastfeeding doesn’t cause iron-deficiency, exclusively breastfeeding beyond 6 months of age might.
That said, not all 6 month-old babies show signs of readiness for solids. In such a case, consider getting your baby’s iron levels tested and supplementing accordingly.
In sum Continuing to exclusively breastfeed past 6 months of age may increase the risk of iron deficiency in some babies.
How can I increase my baby’s iron levels?
Delayed chord clamping
If you’re currently pregnant, consider delaying the clamping of your baby’s umbilical chord immediately after birth.
Waiting for the chord to stop pulsating before clamping it allows iron-rich blood to travel from the placenta to the newborn baby, ultimately increasing your baby’s iron stores (12).
A Cochrane review — a systematic review of the evidence performed by independent scientists — suggests that delayed chord clamping may reduce a baby’s risk of experiencing iron deficiency anemia between 3-6 months by over 250% (3).
Eat enough iron-rich foods throughout your pregnancy
Eating too little iron 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. So getting enough iron during this time can help increase the size of the iron stores your baby will be born with (2).
The amount of iron you’ll need during pregnancy is much greater than what you normally need when not pregnant. So it may be difficult to ingest this amount of iron through diet alone — whether you’re vegan or not (13).
So make sure to get your iron levels tested throughout your pregnancy and take a supplement, if needed.
Introduce your baby to iron-rich solids
Offering iron-rich foods from the get-go is a good way to help your baby maintain good blood iron levels.
The video below gives you some ideas of iron-rich food combinations you can make when first introducing solids to your vegetarian or vegan baby.
If you’d like some more ideas, here’s a free downloadable list of the plant foods richest in iron, and which foods to combine them with when planning your baby’s meals.
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?
There are two ways to tell if your baby is getting enough iron.
The first is to track their food intake using a free online journal such as Cronometer. This is a little time-consuming, but can give you an idea of whether your baby’s daily iron targets are met.
The second, and more precise way is ask your paediatrician to request a blood test for your baby’s hemoglobin and ferritin levels.
Hemoglobin is a good indicator of the amount of iron circulating in the blood, while ferritin indicates the size of your baby’s iron stores.
In my experience, pediatricians seldom check for ferritin levels, unless hemoglobin levels are low.
However, ferritin levels tend to drop before hemoglobin levels do. So checking ferritin levels can be a good way to identify low iron stores before anemia sets in (2).
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 the iron absorption from plants
The iron found in plants tends to be more difficult for our bodies to absorb than the iron found in animal products.
Here are some ways you can use to help your body absorb iron from plant foods.
- Eat more iron-rich foods: Offering your baby higher amounts of iron than the recommended 8-11 mg per day can compensate for the decreased iron absorption from plant foods (14).
- Combine with 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).
- Use a cast iron pan: Cooking foods in 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: Doing so 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 help your baby absorb more iron from plant foods.
Should I give my baby iron supplements?
Iron supplements are very useful when trying to reverse an iron deficiency. That said, offering your baby iron supplements 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 lead to convulsions, organ failure and, in extreme cases, even coma or death (24).
Therefore, consider getting your baby’s hemoglobin and ferritin levels tested before considering supplements.
In sum Iron supplements are a good way to treat an iron deficiency, but can do more harm than good if they’re not truly needed. So only offer iron supplements under the guidance of your healthcare provider.
To sum it up
Iron is a nutrient that’s very important for your baby’s growth and development.
So it’s worth making sure you offer your baby iron-rich foods as soon as solids are introduced. This can help minimize your baby’s risk of developing an iron deficiency.
Vegetarian and vegan babies may struggle to absorb enough iron from plant foods. So tracking their intake, cooking and combining foods optimally and getting their blood levels tested may be particularly beneficial for them.
If you have any questions, or tips that have helped your vegetarian or vegan baby maintain adequate iron levels, please leave them down below. I’m sure other readers will appreciate them!