Iron is a very important nutrient throughout the lifespan, and particularly for developing babies. One of the easiest ways to make sure your baby is getting enough of this mineral is by adding iron-fortified baby cereal to their diet once they’ve weaned to solid foods.
However, iron-fortified baby cereal isn’t recommended for all babies. Plus, many parents have questions about the type and safety of iron added to baby cereal. Here’s what you need to know about getting enough iron for your baby, and whether iron-fortified baby cereal is a good option.
What is iron?
Iron is a mineral that’s naturally found in soil and in many foods. It’s also added to certain supplements and fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and baby cereals.
It’s important to get enough iron because this nutrient plays a critical role in the transportation of oxygen throughout the body. It’s an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that moves oxygen from the lungs to all of the tissues of the body. Iron is also a component of myoglobin, a muscle protein that provides oxygen, and is therefore also involved in keeping muscle cells healthy.
For babies, iron is especially important for neurological development, physical growth, making some hormones, and maintaining cellular health.
There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron is found in animal-derived foods, such as meat, poultry, and seafood. On the other hand, non-heme iron comes from plant foods, such as beans, peas, lentils, soy, tomatoes, nuts, and leafy greens.
How much iron does my baby need?
Babies accumulate and store enough iron to meet their needs while in utero. These stores are adequate to meet their iron needs for the first 4-6 months of life. Then, it’s time to think about where else iron will come from in their diet.
Not getting enough iron over time can lead to a depletion of iron stores and eventually iron deficiency, which is not uncommon around the world. In children, iron deficiency anemia can result in abnormalities in brain function and psychomotor skills, which can eventually lead to learning difficulties.
Iron deficiency early in life can be a persistent issue throughout life, so it’s important to make sure babies get enough iron and that parents are aware of dietary iron sources. Infants who are born prematurely, or to mothers who are iron deficient, are at a higher risk for developing iron deficiency early in life.
Potential symptoms of inadequate iron status in babies may include a slowed rate of weight gain, delayed physical growth, pale skin, lack of appetite, and general irritability or more fussiness than usual.
As for how much iron babies need, the adequate intake for 0-6-month-olds is 0.27 mg per day. The recommended dietary allowance for iron increases to 11 mg for 7-12-month-olds, and then adjusts to 7 mg for 1-3-year-old toddlers.
Note that while plant-based kids are not inherently at a higher risk for iron deficiency compared to omnivorous kids, it does appear to be more common in kids who don’t eat animal products. Some research also suggests that plant-based kids tend to have lower iron stores than omnivorous kids, despite having a similar intake of this nutrient - but this doesn’t appear to be a bad thing.
Many experts agree that a plant-based diet may increase recommended daily iron needs by 1.8 times. This is likely because of multiple factors, such as plant-based (non-heme) iron having a lower absorption rate than animal-based (heme) iron.
Additionally, there are some compounds in iron-containing plant foods that can work against iron absorption. These compounds are called oxalates, polyphenols, and phytates and are found in foods like grains, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds. Calcium may also reduce the absorption of iron.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that these types of foods should be avoided as they offer a number of important nutrients and health benefits for babies. It just means that it’s important to offer a wide variety of iron-containing foods to your baby, particularly if they follow a totally plant-based diet.
How much iron is in infant cereal?
In order to help meet your baby’s iron needs, iron-fortified baby cereal has long been one of the simplest options for parents and caregivers to offer. While rice cereal has been the traditional option, many brands also make oat and multigrain baby cereals today that have iron added to them. These may be a better option, due to the rising concern around arsenic contamination of rice-based baby products.
Babies who are starting to wean from breast milk and/or formula and being introduced to solid foods may not be eating a lot at first, but that’s okay. Iron-fortified baby cereals tend to pack in the iron in a small serving and are an appropriate choice for babies who aren’t getting iron from other supplemental sources.
For instance, iron-fortified baby cereals should only be used for babies who are exclusively breastfed, and not using infant formula, as the latter is already fortified adequately with iron. Only after the formula is no longer being used should formula-fed babies be introduced to these baby cereals.
In a 4 tablespoon (14 gram) serving of iron-fortified baby cereal, you’re likely to find at least 45-60% of your baby’s daily needs for iron or around 5 mg.
Is iron in baby cereal safe?
Yes, the iron in baby cereal is safe. The use of iron fortification is an effective and safe way to help meet an infant’s dietary needs for this nutrient if no other supplemental sources are being provided.
Again, iron-fortified baby cereal is not recommended for babies who are using infant formula for their nutrition needs. This is because the formula is already fortified with iron, and incorporating both sources can potentially contribute too much iron to your child’s diet. And too much iron, just like too little iron, can be problematic for developing kids.
On the other hand, exclusively breastfed babies are okay to be offered iron-fortified baby cereal daily starting at around 6 months of age. This is because the iron content of breast milk is naturally low, and largely unaffected by the mother’s diet. Some sources have found that breast milk contains only around 0.3 mg of iron per liter, making it a poor source of iron in itself.
In this case, iron-fortified baby cereal is a great option to help meet the needs of exclusively breastfed babies who are beginning to wean and try solid foods.
What kind of iron is in baby cereal?
The kind of iron used to fortify foods is non-heme iron, which is the same type found in plant-based foods. On the ingredients list, it may be listed as ferrous sulfate or potentially “Electrolytic Iron”.
The iron used in baby cereal has been added for the purpose of easily helping you meet your baby’s daily needs. It does not change the flavor or texture of the baby cereal.
Is iron in baby cereal magnetic?
Recent headlines, sparked by viral videos on the internet, have some parents concerned over whether they’re feeding their baby magnetic cereal - and if this is unsafe.
The concern stems from someone who posted a video of placing a magnet over their infant’s baby cereal and purportedly pulling out metal particles. From here, other people tried the same experiment and found similar results.
While this sounds scary, don’t be alarmed. According to baby cereal manufacturers, including well-known and respected names like Gerber, the dark magnetic particles found in these are in fact added iron.
Fortifying baby cereals with iron means adding essential particles like this, and the reason people can pull them out with a magnet is that iron is a naturally magnetic metal.
Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics has supported the use of iron fortification for infant formulas and baby products for decades due to the critical roles of this nutrient in a baby’s growth and neurological development.
The use of iron fortification in these ways has helped reduce the prevalence of iron deficiency anemia in children around the world, particularly in their first year of life as they adjust to consuming more iron-rich solid foods.
Does iron-fortified cereal cause constipation?
While large doses of iron can promote constipation in developing digestive tracts, the amount of iron in fortified baby cereals is generally unlikely to cause this issue for most babies.
Additionally, the type of iron used in baby cereals is meant to be easily digestible, further minimizing the risk for constipation.
If your baby is experiencing constipation that doesn’t go away, it’s best to speak with your child’s pediatrician or dietitian to examine potential causes and make adjustments where needed.
How to boost iron absorption
To help make sure your baby is getting enough iron, it’s a good idea to incorporate other foods that actually help boost iron absorption into their diet. Iron-rich foods should regularly be offered both to breastfed and formula-fed babies.
What types of foods are best to help with this? Vitamin C helps optimize iron bioavailability, so pairing foods that are rich in iron alongside foods that are rich in vitamin C is a super easy habit to get into.
Some examples of vitamin C food sources for babies include tomatoes, citrus fruits (like oranges and grapefruit), bell peppers, raspberries, and strawberries. Serve these types of foods alongside iron-fortified baby cereal whenever possible.
Make sure that you’re preparing these in age-appropriate ways, which may mean pureeing them or simply softening them and cutting them into safe sizes for babies who are doing baby-led weaning.
For younger babies, an easy way to add vitamin C is to add a few drops of orange juice to prepare baby cereal.
Overall, offering iron sources in addition to foods rich in vitamin C to your baby multiple times a day is the best way to help meet their needs, especially if your baby is not taking a daily multivitamin or iron supplement.
Other plant-based sources of iron for babies
It can be a good idea to offer babies iron-fortified baby cereal throughout their first year of life, as this is a reliable and high-quality source of this critical nutrient. In addition, however, you can and should offer whole food sources of iron to your baby as they become more used to eating.
While animal-derived foods like meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs may be the most widely recommended dietary sources of iron, don’t worry - this doesn’t mean that you can’t provide enough iron if your baby follows a plant-based diet.
Some of the best plant-based sources of iron for babies include:
- Hummus: 1 mg of iron in 3 Tbsp
- Tofu: 2.5 mg of iron in 2 ounces
- Sprouted grain bread: 1 mg of iron in 1 slice
- Spinach: 3 mg of iron in ½ cup cooked
- Kidney beans: 2 mg of iron in ½ cup
- Lentils: 3 mg of iron in ½ cup cooked
- Tomatoes: 2 mg of iron in ½ cup canned and stewed
- Quinoa: 1.5 mg of iron in ½ cup cooked
- Green peas: 1 mg of iron in ½ cup
- Chickpea or legume pasta: 3 mg of iron in 1 ounce
Iron is a critical nutrient throughout the lifespan, and particularly during the first year of an infant’s life. While babies get enough iron from utero for the first 4-6 months, it’s important to make sure your child has other good sources after that.
Formula-fed babies will receive enough iron from the formula, as these are already fortified with it, and should not use fortified baby cereal. For exclusively breastfed babies, however, iron-fortified baby cereals are a great, inexpensive, and simple option to offer daily to help meet needs as your child expands their palate of solid foods. Both breastfed and formula-fed babies should be offered plenty of iron-rich whole foods as well.
For weaned toddlers who may benefit from additional dietary sources of iron, Else Nutrition Toddler Formula provides 55% of a toddler’s daily iron needs per serving.
Else Super Cereal for babies 6+ months is coming in January!