Iron is an important nutrient that’s used by the body to produce hemoglobin.

Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein in the red blood cells (RBCs) that helps your blood carry oxygen and deliver it to all your other cells.

Without hemoglobin, the body will stop producing healthy RBCs and your baby’s muscles, tissues, and cells might not get the oxygen they need.

Breast-fed babies usually get enough iron from their mother’s milk, while infants fed with formula should receive iron-fortified formula.

When your toddler switches to eating regular foods, they might not be eating enough iron-rich foods. This can put them at risk for iron deficiency, which is the most common cause of anemia.

Iron deficiency can hamper your child’s growth and may also cause:

  • learning and behavioral issues
  • social withdrawal
  • delayed motor skills
  • muscle weakness

Iron is also important for the immune system. Not getting enough iron can mean more infections, more colds, and more bouts of the flu.

Symptoms may not appear at first, but as the anemia gets worse your child may experience:

  • fatigue
  • pale skin
  • irritability
  • fast or irregular heartbeat
  • decreased appetite
  • slow weight gain
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • lightheadedness

How much iron does my toddler need?

Ever wonder why so many cereals are fortified with iron? Iron is a very important nutrient for a rapidly growing toddler. It might be difficult for a picky toddler to obtain enough from solid foods. The recommended daily requirements for iron vary by age.

  • ages 1 to 3 years: 7 milligrams per day
  • ages 4 to 8 years: 10 milligrams per day

Low-birth-weight and premature infants usually require more iron than normal-weight babies.

Heme vs. nonheme iron

Dietary iron has two main forms: heme and nonheme. Plants contain nonheme iron. Meats and seafood contain both heme and nonheme iron.

Nonheme iron isn’t as easily absorbed by the body as heme iron. This is true for both toddlers and adults. If your child eats a vegetarian or mostly vegetarian diet, aim for twice as much iron as the recommended amount.

The body absorbs iron better when the iron is ingested along with a source of vitamin C. To increase the amount of iron absorbed by the body, serve iron-rich foods alongside foods rich in vitamin C.

Examples of foods high in vitamin C include:

  • orange juice
  • oranges
  • grapefruit
  • broccoli
  • tomatoes
  • strawberries
  • bell peppers
  • papaya
  • cantaloupe
  • sweet potatoes

What foods should my toddler eat for iron?

Feeding your toddler iron-rich foods alongside foods high in vitamin C can help decrease their risk of developing iron deficiency. Toddlers shouldn’t only be given cow’s milk because it doesn’t contain any iron.

1. Lean meats

Meat and poultry are good sources of iron because they contain large amounts of heme iron. Beef, organ meats, and liver in particular have a lot of iron. Dark chicken and turkey meat are also rich in iron.

Try making your toddler a stew or casserole with soft, well-cooked lean meat. Make sure to remove the fatty part of the meat since there is very little iron in the fatty parts. Spaghetti with meat and tomato sauce is another iron-friendly option.

2. Fortified cereals (dry and instant)

Fortified and low-sugar cereals like oatmeal are one of the best ways to ensure your toddler gets enough iron.

A serving of iron-fortified cereals and oatmeal typically has 100 percent of the daily value for iron in just one serving. The exact amount will vary, so be sure to check the label. Dry cereals, like Cheerios, are usually fortified as well.

A few times a week for breakfast, try giving your toddler iron-fortified breakfast cereal or oatmeal with some blueberries or strawberries on top for some added vitamin C.

3. Beans

If you are aiming for a vegetarian diet, or your child isn’t a fan of meat, beans are a great compromise. Soybeans, lima beans, kidney beans, and lentils, for example, are loaded with essential vitamins and minerals, including iron. A half cup of white beans has 4 milligrams of iron, while a half cup of lentils has 3.

Mash up some cooked lentils or make a soup or mild chili. Try mashing in some enriched rice with your beans for a complete protein and high-iron meal.

You can also try serving your toddler some baked beans with a piece of whole-wheat bread for a high-iron lunch. A side of mashed up sweet potatoes can add some vitamin C to the dish.

Chickpeas, known to some as garbanzo beans, are another type of bean high in iron and a great snack for toddlers (and adults!). You can also blend the chickpeas to make your own iron-rich hummus.

4. Spinach

Dark green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli, and spinach are among your best vegetable options for iron. Try serving boiled and drained spinach for your toddler. A half cup has about 3 milligrams of iron.

You can also try adding chopped greens to your toddler’s mac and cheese or scrambled eggs.

Add beans and other vegetables to an omelet or scrambled eggs to boost the iron content. Eggs are a good source of iron too.

5. Raisins and other dried fruit

Kids love to snack on raisins. The good news is that the dried fruit can give your toddler a boost in iron, while also helping to prevent constipation. A quarter cup of raisins has about 1 milligram of iron.

6. Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds contain nearly 6 milligrams of iron per half cup. Try making a trail mix with raisins, prunes, dried apricots, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds.

Keep in mind that raisins and seeds may be choking hazards for very young children. Mash or cut these foods into small pieces and keep watch on your toddler while they munch on them.

7. Peanut butter and jelly

Already a kid-friendly favorite, peanut butter and jelly sandwiched between fortified whole-wheat bread can help your toddler easily meet their iron needs. Peanut butter baked into cookies with enriched flour or oatmeal can be a tasty high-iron treat.

8. Prune juice

Prune juice is one of the few types of fruit juices high in iron. It contains roughly 3 milligrams per cup. Also used for constipation, it could help your toddler get enough of their daily iron supply.

Due to their high sugar content, juices should be limited to no more than 4 to 6 ounces per day.

9. Tuna

Canned light tuna is a low-calorie and low-fat addition to your baby’s diet that also supplies iron and other important nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids. Combine shredded tuna with pureed vegetables to boost your toddler’s iron intake, but hold off if seafood allergies run in your family.

10. Potato (skins)

When you make french fries or baked potatoes for your toddler, be sure to leave the skin on. Potato skins contain most of the nutrients in a potato, including five times the amount of iron as the rest of the potato. Potatoes are also a good source of vitamin C.

What about supplements?

If your doctor thinks that your child has iron-deficiency anemia, they might do a simple blood test and prescribe iron supplements. Follow the instructions given by your doctor and make sure all supplements are out of the reach of children.

Excessive iron intake can lead to serious health problems, so never give your child iron supplements without first consulting a doctor.

According to the National Institutes of Health, between 1983 and 1991, the accidental ingestion of iron supplements caused almost a third of accidental poisoning deaths in children in the United States.

Most children don’t need supplemental iron.

To make sure your toddler has an appetite for iron-rich foods, don’t let them fill up on milk and dairy products, as these have no iron. Many iron-fortified foods like cereals and breads are high in sugar and low in fiber. Balance these with foods that are naturally high in iron. — Karen Gill, San Francisco-based pediatrician