Who needs Iron?

Babies and Toddlers

Why is iron important for babies?

In babies and toddlers, iron is vital for physical and mental development. Babies have very high iron needs, because they are growing so rapidly - in the first 12 months birth weight triples.

Between birth and two years, the human brain grows to 80% of its adult size. Iron is deposited in the brain - it is part of the brain structure and is therefore an essential nutrient for mental development.

What can happen if my baby is iron deficient?

Infants who are severely iron deficient may suffer from:

  • Altered behaviour.
  • Reduced immunity and therefore more frequent infections
  • Slower development of motor skills (like balance and coordination)
  • Slower language development
  • Intelligence / IQ (a few points)

Research has shown that even when the iron deficiency is treated, some of these effects can be permanent.

New Zealand data shows we have a problem with iron deficiency. Some studies show up to 30% of infants are iron deficient; up to 20% have the more severe form of iron deficiency anaemia.

What iron stores does my baby have?

Providing babies are not premature, most are born with good iron stores. When combined with an infant formula or breast milk, this iron is sufficient to last 4 to 6 months. Breast-fed babies rarely lack iron. Although the iron content of breast milk is not high, this iron is very well absorbed.

By around six months of age the baby's iron stores are beginning to run out, and iron needs are increasing.

Iron Requirements

The following table gives the recommended dietary intake of iron for New Zealand infants and toddlers as outlined in the 2006 Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand.

Recommended Daily Intakes for Iron

Iron per day (mg)

Infants 0-6 months
Infants 7-12 months
Children 1-3 years


Iron needs are particularly high in the six to nine months period and this is the time when solid foods are gradually introduced. It is important these early foods are good sources of iron that is easily absorbed.

How can I help my baby get enough iron?

To help your baby get enough iron, follow these simple rules:

Under 4 months - All baby needs is breast or formula milk. Do not give tea, cow's milk or any solids.

Around 6 months - Continue to breast feed or use an iron-fortified infant formula. Introduce iron-fortified baby cereal mixed with a little breast milk or formula.

Around 6 months - Introduce puréed vegetables: mix with a little boiled water, unsalted vegetable cooking water, breast milk or infant formula to make a smooth, soft mixture. Introduce puréed fruits.

6 - 9 months - Continue to breast feed or use an appropriate infant formula. Soon after 6 months introduce puréed lamb, liver, kidney, beef or chicken. Mix these with moist puréed or mashed vegetables. Beef, lamb and white meats are easily digested by most six month old babies. Introduce new foods one at a time. By 8 months of age your baby should be having 2 to 3 meals a day and 3 to 4 milk feeds each day. At this stage, baby should be offered solids before the milk feed.

9 - 12 months - Progress to finely chopped foods, then to chunkier pieces (wedges, slices, strips) of vegetables, fruits and lean red meats such as beef and lamb. These meats are especially rich in easily absorbed iron. When cooking vegetables, use as little water as possible and do not over cook (heat destroys vitamin C). Cook foods so they are just soft enough for baby to manage.


While liver is an excellent source of iron, it is also rich in vitamin A. Vitamin A is important for health but too much can be harmful for babies. Limit liver to about three teaspoons (15 grams) a week.

Click here for iron-rich recipes for babies and toddlers or freephone 0800 733 466.

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