I have said before that I don’t like to get too hung up on micronutrients. And I stand by that. If you have enough food and eat a variety of that food, you’re very likely meeting your micronutrient needs. But I also believe that knowledge is power. And there are a few aspects of nutrition worth knowing about, since preparing and providing food is our job as parents.

So, why is iron worth knowing about? Iron is important at all stages in life, but children need more than adults. And since the brain requires iron for several metabolic functions including myelination of neurons, it’s crucial for cognitive development. 

Meeting your child’s iron needs is important – but that doesn’t mean it should be complicated! Knowing how to optimize iron in your child’s diet can maximize its effectiveness and make meeting those needs even easier. If your child doesn’t accept many iron-rich foods, celebrate medical science and have a conversation with your pediatrician. The path towards health is different for each child and moving forward begins by simply acknowledging where you are.


Delayed Cord Clamping


Obstetrician cutting the umbilical cord of a newborn

Iron is important long before your child starts solids – it’s essential for a healthy pregnancy. “Delayed cord clamping” is a fairly recent practice meant to optimize the transfer of iron stores from mom to baby. Of course, there are some situations where deferring the clamping of the umbilical cord may not be an option, such as when immediate medical attention is needed. Otherwise, the WHO and ACOG recommend delaying cord clamping by 30-60 seconds after birth.

The transfer of iron between mom and baby is important because milk (breastmilk included) is a poor source of iron. Luckily, infants typically have enough iron stores to support their needs through about 6 months of life, around the time solids start. Essentially, delayed cord clamping may help to ensure that those stores last until solid feeding begins.  


Milk and Iron


Most sources of protein including meat, seafood, and plant-based proteins such as nuts and legumes are significant sources of iron. Dairy, however, is an exception. While dairy is a great source of calcium and milk is a fortified source of Vitamin D, too much can displace iron-rich foods. In essence, because milk (a good source of fat and protein) is filling, providing too much of it can leave little room for other foods.

Because milk and other dairy foods are great sources of nutrients such as protein and calcium, it’s possible that overconsumption of milk is a biproduct of successful milk campaigns. Parents know that children are building bones and therefore need plenty of calcium. But, like most things, balance and variety are key. While dietary guidelines provide a good rule of thumb for how much dairy to include in your child’s diet (generally 2-3 cups daily), intake will surely vary from day to day. And that’s ok! The best way to assure that there is plenty of iron in your child’s diet is to provide a variety of protein foods.


Optimizing Iron in Your Child’s Diet


There are two types of iron found in food: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in flesh food sources (beef, pork, chicken, and seafood). It’s more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is found in both animal and plant sources (like beans, nuts, and legumes) as well as fortified foods. Even though non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed as the heme form, pairing sources of non-heme iron with sources of Vitamin C can increase its bioavailability. Luckily, most fruits and vegetables are a good source of Vitamin C! So, simply serving a fruit or veggie with most meals goes a long way to assure that your child is getting plenty of iron.


A Ferric Finish


Iron is one of those subjects that nutrition nerds like me get super excited about. It’s amazing what it does for the human body! And for developing children, even more so. It’s important. But not so important that it’s worth sacrificing your child’s relationship with food. It’s our job to provide the food. So, knowing a little bit about nutrition can help us to decide which foods to serve.

Knowing a little bit about food and nutrition can also help us advocate for ourselves and our children in a healthcare setting. For example, the 2018 Maternity Practices in Infant Nutrition and Care survey found that only approximately 50% of hospitals currently practice delayed cord clamping. Practice should follow science – but change in practice is slow moving. So, while we cannot (and should not) control what our children eat, there’s still plenty we can do – even before we get to the table.



Looking for iron-rich recipes? Check out these Ropa Vieja Tacos!

Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.

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