Why is Iron Important for my Baby and Toddler?

AllisonMS, RDN, CDN

Read time: 3 minutes

What to know about meeting your baby and toddler’s iron needs

  • Learn why iron is important for your child

  • How much iron is needed by age

  • What foods are good sources of iron

What does iron do?

Iron plays a vital role in the development of hemoglobin, a red blood cell that carries oxygen throughout the body.1 This mineral is also important for neurological development, the functioning of our cells, and appropriate growth and development.2

How much iron does your child need?

Below are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for iron.

  • Infants* 0 – 6 months: 0.27 mg

  • Infants 7 - 12 months: 11 mg

  • Toddlers 1 – 3 years: 7 mg

  • Children 4 – 8 years: 10 mg

  • Children 9 – 13 years: 8 mg1

*Note that the numbers for infants aged 0 to 6 months are Adequate Intakes (AIs), since there is not enough data to establish an RDA. According to the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine, the AIs provide guidance to help get a level of iron that is nutritionally adequate and is equivalent to the average intake of iron in healthy, breastfed babies.1

Iron needs for vegetarians

Since non-heme iron (iron from plant-based foods such as vegetables, beans, and grains) is poorly absorbed, the RDA for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than for people who eat meat, fish, and poultry.1

If you and your child avoid meat and other animal products, be sure to focus on iron-rich vegetarian foods and chat with your health care provider about your iron intake.

Does my baby need an iron supplement?

Babies are born with a reserve of iron that comes from mom while they are in the womb.2,3 While this iron store usually lasts a baby until they are around 4 to 6 months, babies who were born prematurely or low birth weight may have a smaller store of iron.1,3

Babies who drink formula exclusively are recommended to drink iron-fortified formula to ensure their iron needs are met.4 Usually no additional iron supplement is needed.

Since breastmilk provides very little iron, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed babies get a liquid iron supplement starting at 4 months and ending around 6 months, when solid foods are introduced.4,5 This recommendation is both for babies who are exclusively breastfed as well as partially breastfed.

Supplemental iron recommendations may be higher for babies who were born prematurely and those who may be at risk for low iron stores, such as babies whose mothers were iron deficient during pregnancy.1,4

Chat with your baby’s health care provider to determine how much, if any, supplemental iron your little one may need. Iron should never be given to your infant without the approval of their health care professional.10

Learn about: Does my Baby Need Vitamins or Supplements?

What can cause low iron in toddlers?

The most common cause for low iron in toddlers is not eating enough iron-rich foods.12 Toddlers and children have high iron needs to support their growth and development. It’s important that we offer a variety of food sources of iron throughout the week to help meet their body’s high demand.

Additionally, children after age one who drink too much cows milk may then eat less table food and can run the risk of developing iron deficiency.8 It’s important to note that cow’s milk and most plant-based milk alternatives are not a good source of iron.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the amount of milk that your child drinks to only 2 to 3 (8 oz) cups per day (or about 16 to 24 ounces total).9

Learn about:

Does my Toddler need Vitamins or Supplements?

What Type of Milk Should my Toddler Drink?

Food sources of iron

There are two types of dietary iron: Heme iron and non-heme iron.

Heme iron is found in animal-based foods, such as meat, fish, and poultry. Heme iron tends to be better absorbed in the body than non-heme iron.1,6

Non-heme iron is from plant-based foods such as nuts, vegetables, and tofu, as well as fortified cereals and grains.1

A diet rich in vitamin C will help both heme and non-heme iron be absorbed better.7

Read more: Why does Vitamin C Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Tips for getting enough iron in your baby and toddler’s diet

Start on iron-rich foods right away

Iron needs increase for babies who are between 7 and 12 months, making it important to feed your little one iron-rich foods when they start eating solids. Be sure to provide foods in a texture and consistency your infant can handle. Foods such as iron-fortified infant cereals and turkey, chicken, or beef (in a texture baby is ready for) are rich sources of iron.10

As your little one gets better at eating and is advancing textures, keep these iron-rich foods in their diet, changing their texture to meet your baby and toddler’s needs and eating ability.

Read more:

Starting Solids: First Foods & Textures

Starting Solids Food Chart

Incorporate iron containing foods at meal and snack time

Reach for these iron-containing foods throughout the week, and provide them in a texture your little one can handle:

  • Iron fortified cereals

  • White beans

  • Lentils

  • Spinach

  • Tofu

  • Kidney beans

  • Sardines

  • Chickpeas

  • Canned tomatoes

  • Beef

  • Green peas

  • Roasted chicken and turkey

  • Brown rice

  • Light canned tuna

  • Broccoli

  • Seedless raisins (For children under 4 years, be sure to prepare raisins in a way that will help reduce the risk of choking, such as soaking them in hot water, then mincing or pureeing the softened raisins into yogurt, oatmeal, cereals, or other vegetable or fruit purees.)1

Include Vitamin C-rich foods in your child’s diet

Vitamin C improves how the body absorbs iron. Provide vitamin C-rich foods throughout the day.

Foods that contain vitamin C include:

  • Red pepper

  • Orange and orange juice

  • Grapefuit

  • Kiwifruit

  • Broccoli

  • Strawberries

  • Tomato juice and tomatoes

  • Cantaloupe11

As always, prepare these foods in a texture that best suits your child’s eating ability.

Recipe and meal ideas to help your little one get iron in their diet

Wondering about how to include iron in your baby and toddler’s diet? Here are some recipe ideas to help. Feel free to mash or blend any of the below recipes should your little one need a softer or smoother consistency!

Baked Seasoned Chicken Tenders & Sweet Potatoes

Turkey, Carrot and Apricot Puree

Lentil Stew

Avocado Tuna Salad in Mini Pita Pockets

Thai Noodles with Broccoli and Tofu

Ask your little ones doctor if an iron supplement is needed

Before giving your little one an iron supplement, it’s important to chat with their health care provider to understand if they need one. Iron should never be given without the approval of their health care professional.10

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Meal Plan for 18 to 24 Month Old Toddlers

Helping Your Child Learn to Love Healthy Foods

Sample Meal Plan for 6 to 12 Month Old Baby

Introducing Solids: Signs of Readiness