Iron-rich foods for baby-led weaning

baby feeding herself iron-rich foods

Iron-rich foods for baby-led weaning

Are you starting your baby on solids with Baby-led Weaning?

Great, there are lots of benefits to baby-led weaning (BLW)! But one of the main concerns health professionals have is the perceived challenge of feeding your baby iron-rich foods for Baby-led Weaning.  

In this blog, I’ll share why iron is so important, how much your baby needs and tips to make sure your baby gets enough iron.

Let’s dive in!

Why is iron so important for baby?

Iron is essential for physical and mental growth, and deficiency is not uncommon. One Canadian study tested 8 to 15-month-olds for blood iron levels. They found 33.9% had iron deficiency and 4.3% had anemia.

One out of 3 of my kiddos had this problem too. I didn’t find out until she was 4 years old and I believe it affected her growth. And could be why she’s significantly shorter than the rest of our family! 

And anemia can lead to irreversible physical and mental effects, like delayed attention and social withdrawal. So it’s always a good idea to test your baby’s levels around 12 months, and an iron supplement will be needed if they are low.

Is my baby at risk for iron deficiency?

From birth to 6 months, babies survive with their stores of iron built up during pregnancy. By 6 months, your baby’s stores from before birth start to run out. The amount of iron stores your baby has will depend on:

1.  Mom’s blood iron levels in pregnancy. If the mom had low iron levels while pregnant, the newborn is more likely to have smaller iron stores.

2.  Gestational age at birth.  Most of the babe’s iron stores are built up in the third trimester of pregnancy. Premature babies don’t benefit from this extra time to build a full supply of iron, so many of them require iron supplements. Finally, ONE benefit to those extra 17, 9 and 9 days I was “overdue” with my three babies! 

3.  How soon the umbilical cord was clamped. One study found that if a mother was able to wait for 3 minutes before cutting the umbilical cord (“delayed cord clamping”) at birth, her baby had higher iron stores at 4 months.

How much iron does my baby need?

Odd thing is, this number varies depending on where you live! In Norah America, the recommended intake of iron is 11 mg per day from 6-11 months of age. As one comparison, the United Kingdom recommends an iron intake of 7.8mg/day for a 7-12-month-old.

The North American number is the recommended daily allowance (RDA) value set by the United States and Canada. The RDA is a “level sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of 97 to 98% of healthy people within each age group.

But the 11mg per day goal is assuming your baby is a vegetarian. Because the 11mg/day recommendation was calculated using an iron absorption rate of 10%. Yet for other age categories (assuming a mixed diet including some meat), an iron absorption rate of 18% was used. 

Basically, heme iron from meat is absorbed 2x that of non-heme iron from fortified or non-meat (fortified & plant sources) of iron. More on that later, but if you offer your baby heme iron, then 11mg a day is a bit of an inflated goal. Phew!

Signs of iron deficiency in your baby

If you’re worried that you’re little one isn’t getting enough iron, here are some signs of iron deficiency you can watch for:

  • Slow weight gain
  • Little appetite
  • Pale skin
  • Always tired
  • Poor immunity (often sick).

With my daughter, I noticed her hair was quite thin and fell out fairly easily. Apparently this is a sign too!

To prevent anemia, the American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that all 12-month-olds have a blood test to check their iron levels. If you’re worried about your child’s iron intake or they have some signs of deficiency, you’ll definitely want to take them to the doctor and request a test. 

If iron levels are quite low, you will need to give your child a supplement for a few months. Food alone is unlikely to be enough to bring them up to normal.

Can Baby-led Weaners get enough iron?

Is it even possible to get adequate amounts of iron when using BLW? To find out, the Baby-led Introduction to Starting SolidS (BLISS) study looked at this. Two hundred families from New Zealand were split into either the BLISS group (started solids via BLW with education and support on how to do it safely) and the control group. 

BLISS babies were taught to avoid choking, growth faltering and how to get enough iron-rich foods when self-feeding. They were encouraged to offer at each meal:

  • High iron food (focus on red meat and fortified cereals)
  • Energy-rich food (i.e. cheese or avocado)
  • Easy-to-eat food (i.e. fruit or veggie)

One of the studies published out of the BLISS trial was titled “Impact of a modified version of baby-led weaning on iron intake and status: a randomized controlled trial.” Weighted 3-day diet records were used to look at nutrient intake at 7 and 12 months of age. And a blood sample at 12 months was used to analyze the babies’ iron status.

Results found that 83% of babies in both groups had adequate iron levels, although 5% control and 7% BLISS had iron deficiency. And there was no difference between the two groups at 7 or 12 months when comparing iron levels and iron stores. Or in iron intake from the diet, which was an average of 3mg per day at 7 age months and 5mg at 12 months (waaaaay below RDAs of 11mg).

This is great news! With some extra education about how to safely practice BLW, it can be a nutritious and safe method to starting solids.

Iron-rich foods for baby-led weaning

There are two types of iron present in food: 

Heme iron is found in meat and fish. People usually absorb about 15 – 35% of the heme iron from food. This varies depending on your iron levels (you absorb more if you’re low in iron). And dietary inhibitors (likes phytates) and enhancers (such as vitamin C).

Food sources of heme iron for baby

  • Clams ( 1oz = 8mg)
  • Beef Liver (cooked) (1oz = 1.9mg)
  • Bison (1oz = 1.1mg)
  • Shrimp (1oz = 0.9mg)
  • Beef (1oz = 0.8mg)
  • Sardines (1oz = 0.8mg)
  • Dark turkey meat (1oz = 0.7mg)
  • Chicken breast, pork or salmon  (1oz = 0.3mg)

How to serve heme-iron to baby:

  • Ground meat sauce
  • Meatloaf
  • Meatballs or baby burgers
  • Pressure or slow-cooked pork or beef roast, shredded
  • Ribs or chicken legs (removed of gristle) – also great pressure/slow-cooked
  • Low sodium canned salmon, sardines or clams
  • Meat puree spread on toast strips
  • Eggs fried and sliced in strips or scrambled. Or baked into these Sweet Potato & Breakfast Tortilla strips.
  • Salmon fish cakes

Non-heme iron is found in plants. Absorption levels are lower than heme-iron and will vary from about 2-5%.

Food sources of non-heme iron for baby:

  • Fortified infant cereal (¼ cup = 3.7mg)
  • Tofu (¼ cup = 3.3mg)
  • Dried apricots (¼ cup = 1.9mg)
  • Lentils (¼ cup cooked = 1.7mg)
  • Hemp hearts (1 Tbsp = 1.4mg)
  • Beans (¼ cup = 1mg)
  • Blackstrap molasses (1 Tbsp = 0.9mg)

How to serve non-heme iron sources to baby:

  • Grate firm tofu or slice it into thin strips. Blend soft tofu into smoothies.
  • Add blackstrap molasses to baking.
  • Use fortified infant cereal as a coating for slippery banana or avocado slices. Or substitute half of the flour in a baking recipe with infant cereal like in these muffins.
  • Serve hummus on toast strips. Black beans are a good finger food to practice the pincer grasp.

Increasing iron absorption for baby

Where do parents go wrong when starting solids with Baby-led Weaning? It’s super-common to just offer fruits and veggies. And while nutritious, they don’t have enough calories or nutrients to be your baby’s main source of food (beyond breastmilk).

One good thing about fruits or veggies is that eating vitamin C along with iron will boost iron absorption. You can find Vitamin C in fruits and veggies, such as citrus, berries, broccoli and bell peppers. 

Luckily, it’s easy to naturally pair vitamin C and iron sources, like:

  • a pasta sauce with ground meat (iron) and tomato sauce (vitamin C),
  • cereal (fortified with iron) and berries (vitamin C),
  • tofu (iron) veggie (vitamin C) stirfry.

Tips to get enough iron for baby-led weaning

  1. Offer a source of iron-rich food at each meal (two times per day when starting): scrambled eggs, black beans, tofu, cooked spinach, clams, oysters, liver, fish, beef, bison (higher in iron than beef!), chicken (dark meat is higher in iron than white) or pork. 
  2. Offer iron-fortified infant cereal baked into finger foods. You can also sub half of the flour in your pancake recipes for fortified infant cereal. Like in this avocado blueberry muffin recipe for example.
  3. Include a source of vitamin C in the meal, to increase absorption. Top fortified pancakes or cereal with fruit compote, serve lentils in stewed tomatoes and add spinach to a fruit smoothie.
  4. Cook with cast iron. Cast-iron pots safely add extra iron to the dishes cooked in them. If you don’t have one, you can add a product called Lucky Iron Fish.
  5. Use pureed meat as a spread or dip on toast or crackers (sort of like pate!).

Iron foods for vegetarian babies

The official position of the Dietitians of Canada and American Dietetic Association is that: 

“Well-planned vegan, lacto-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation. Appropriately planned vegan, lacto-vegetarian, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets satisfy nutrient needs of infants, children, and adolescents and promote normal growth.”

Of course the wider the variety of foods you can offer your baby, the easier it is to meet their nutritional needs. And there are some nutrients (omega-3 fats, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B12) that you have to pay attention to. I have more information about this in my book The Parents’ Guide to Baby-led Weaning.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies take a dietary iron supplement starting at 4 months of age. And while this isn’t a worldwide recommendation, you may want to ask your doctor if she thinks iron supplementation would be beneficial for your vegetarian baby. 

Iron isn’t absorbed well from plant sources. That’s why it’s especially important for vegetarians and vegans to pair a source of iron and a source of vitamin C at each meal. And make sure to focus on offering an iron source at every meal like eggs (for ovo-vegetarians), tofu, edamame, beans, lentils and hemp seeds. 

I also encourage offering fortified infant cereals to all vegetarian babies. Choose other options like oats or multigrain If you’re worried about arsenic in rice cereal.

Ways to use fortified infant cereal when baby-led weaning: 

  • Bake fortified infant cereals into finger foods for your beginning baby-led weaner.
  • Roll slices of slippery fruit in the cereal (like banana of avocado). Makes it easier to grasp and adds iron!
  • Offer your baby a “dipper” spoon, like Num Num Gootensils (affiliate link) to self-feed cereal.
  • Once your baby has developed a pincer grasp, try some of the fortified finger-friendly cereals in the baby-toddler food aisle of the grocery store.

Sample iron-rich meal plan for baby-led weaning

How does this all come together? Check out the meal plan below for an example of iron-rich meals for baby.

I’ve only included 2 meals per day and they are friendly for a baby with a “palmer” grasp, to make this meal plan beginning BLW-friendly. You can see in the sample meal plan below that I’ve included a source of iron and source of vitamin C at each meal. 

Starred recipes are from my book “The Parents’ Guide to Baby-led Weaning.”

Sample one week meal plan for baby starting baby-led weaning

Bon Apetit baby!

Want to learn more about Baby-led Weaning? Check out my free BLW webinar.

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