Iron needs of babies and children

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Iron needs of babies and children

Iron is a mineral that babies and children need for good health and development.

Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to all cells in the body. Our bodies need iron to make hemoglobin. Iron gives red blood cells their colour. When you don’t have enough iron, red blood cells become small and pale. They can’t carry enough oxygen to your body’s organs and muscles. This is called anemia.

What are the symptoms of iron deficiency?

Babies and children need iron for their brains to develop normally. Babies who don’t get enough iron (“iron deficiency”) may be less physically active and develop more slowly. They may also show these symptoms:

  • slow weight gain,
  • pale skin,
  • no appetite, and
  • irritability (cranky, fussy).

Iron deficiency can affect how older children do in school. Low levels of iron can make it hard for children to concentrate and cause them to feel tired and weak.

How much iron do babies and children need?

Full-term babies are born with a reserve of iron, which comes from their mother’s blood while they are in the womb.

For the first 6 months of life, breastfed babies will get what they need from their mother’s milk. However, waiting too long after 6 months to introduce other foods increases your baby’s risk of iron deficiency. If breastfeeding is not an option, use a store-bought iron-fortified infant formula for the first 12 months. The formula should be cow’s milk-based.

Once babies start eating solid foods, the amount of iron they need depends on their age. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is the amount a person needs every day to stay healthy.

Age Amount of iron per day (recommended daily allowance)
7 to 12 months 11 mg
1 to 3 years 7 mg
4 to 8 years 10 mg
9 to 13 years 8 mg
14 to 18 years 11 mg (for boys)
15 mg (for girls)

Source: Health Canada, Dietary Reference Intakes

What foods are good sources of iron?

There are two different types of iron:

  • Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body. It is found in meats.
  • Non-heme iron comes from plant sources like legumes, vegetables and cereals.

Foods that are rich in iron include:

  • Meats: Beef, lamb, pork, veal, liver, chicken, turkey.
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Grains and cereals: Iron-fortified cereals, whole grain breads, enriched bread, pasta and rice.

Other sources of iron include:

  • Legumes: Chick peas, lentils, dried peas and beans.
  • Vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green peas, beans.

To help the body absorb iron, combine these foods with good sources of vitamin C, such as oranges, tomatoes and red peppers. For example, serve an iron-fortified breakfast cereal with orange slices. Or top spaghetti with a meat and tomato sauce.

Is cow’s milk a good source of iron?

No, cow’s milk is not a good source of iron. Even though cow’s milk has about as much iron as human milk, the body doesn’t absorb it well.

  • Be sure your baby is getting other sources of iron and vitamin C before you start to offer cow’s milk. Wait until your baby is9-12 months old before introducing whole cow’s milk.
  • Drinking too much cow’s milk can lead to iron deficiency.

Should I give my child an iron supplement?

  • Full-term babies who are breastfed or who get iron-fortified infant formula from birth do not need an iron supplement.
  • Preterm babies should get an iron supplement by the time they are 8 weeks old until their first birthday. Talk to your doctor about the right amount.
  • Children over a year old don’t need an iron supplement unless they aren’t eating enough iron-rich foods. Talk to your child’s doctor if you think this is the case.


Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Nutrition and Gastroenterology Committee

Last updated: October 2012