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How to prevent Iron deficiency in Children

Updated on August 18, 2012

Iron deficient anaemia

Iron plays a vital role in the diet, allowing the body to perform many functions. Iron is the vehicle that carries oxygen in the blood stream to the cells and aids our muscles to store oxygen. Iron also helps us to digest food as well as many other functions. If our iron levels are low then our body and general health will begin to suffer.

Iron deficiency occurs when there are not adequate iron stores or iron to meet the body’s needs. If the iron levels are low in infants it can result in impaired cognitive and physical development. Individuals with low iron levels may feel tired, irritable with reduced concentration and physical tiredness.

What causes Iron deficiency?

  • · Infants and children grow very rapidly and may not consume enough iron in the diet.
  • · Women who are pregnant - may often benefit from iron supplements especially in the 3rd trimester as the body’s iron requirements increase (2)
  • · Losing blood, either a significant loss or over a long period of time may cause the iron levels to deplete

Food rich in Iron

There are many different sources in which iron can be absorbed via the diet. It is well documented that red meat, poultry and fish can be absorbed up to 2-3 times more efficiently than from other sources (1).

  • · Non meat sources of iron in the diet are dependent of other foods consumed at the same meal.
  • · Iron rich foods such as meat, poultry and fish with fortified grain, lentils, spinach and broccoli will increase the absorption of the non-meat iron rich foods (1)
  • · Foods and liquids that are rich in vitamin C will also aid in the absorption of iron rich foods when eaten at the same meal.

Iron deficiency in children – those most at risk

  • · Between the ages of 6-36 months is when children are most at risk of iron deficiency, this is mainly due to rapid growth and inadequate amounts of iron consumed within the diet.
  • · If babies are given cow’s milk as the main source of nutrition before 12 months this may also have a negative effect on the iron stores.
  • · Infants and children between the ages of 1 and 5 years old consuming more than 500mls of cow’s milk a day may be at increased risk of iron deficiency as the desire for food may be decreased by drinking too much milk and not supplementing the diet with iron rich foods.
  • · Breast fed babies from 6 months who do not receive adequate iron from food rich in iron (formula milk is fortified with iron).

Iron deficiency symptoms

  • · Tiredness/lethargy and general weakness
  • · Poor concentrations skills
  • · Decreased or poor cognitive and social development in children
  • · Inability to maintain body temperature
  • · Increased susceptibility to infections
  • · Glossitis – inflamed tongue

Infants and children with a reduced iron intake may not display any signs until they have anaemia. It can be an advantage to screen those children falling into the high risk category especially if you are aware they are not eating a healthy balanced diet. It is always best to check with your health care provider first if you have any concerns.

There are blood tests that can be performed that will screen for iron deficiency anaemia. Your health care provider can undertake these and give you more information on maintaining a healthy diet for your child.

Treating Iron deficiency anaemia

  • · You can give your child iron supplements
  • · Or increase iron rich foods in the diet.

Preventing Iron deficiency in children

Encourage your child to eat a diet plentiful in foods that are iron rich. Such foods are readily available and are often consumed without us realising. These are vegetables (especially) the dark green), fruit, whole grains, milk products, meats, fish, pulses, eggs and nuts (3)

To increase the absorption of these iron rich foods, you can eat or drink foods rich in vitamin c at the same meal.


Breast feeding is recommended for a minimum of 6 months, between 4-6 months you can introduce iron fortified baby cereal or baby rice. Meats that are pureed can also be introduced, providing a good source of iron for your baby.

Multi-vitamins with iron can be given to breast fed babies after 6 months and in some countries this is standard procedure for certain populations. Check with your health care provider and they will advise if this is necessary for your child.

Add foods that rich in vitamin C to the diet between 4- 6 months

If milk is used in the diet only use to mix into food do not use as the main source of nutrition.

Children 1-5 years

Limit your child to a maximum of 500 mls (1 pint) of milk a day. Once your child is 2 years old you may give them half fat milk if they are eating a healthy balanced diet and their weight is within normal limits.

Encourage a variety of iron fortified foods in the diet such as bread and cereal.

Include vegetables, fruit and fruit juices when eating non-meat iron rich foods to increase the absorption of iron.

Include red meat and fish in the diet as these are absorbed 2-3 times more effectively than other sources of iron.

To find the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of iron and vitamin C follow the link below.


1. Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium and Zinc. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001.

2. Cogswell ME, Parvanta I, Ickes L, Yip R, Brittenham GM. Iron supplementation during pregnancy, anemia, and birth weight: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78:773-81. [PubMed abstract]

3. Idjradinata P, Pollitt E. Reversal of developmental delays in iron-deficient anaemic infants treated with iron. Lancet 1993;341:1-4. [PubMed abstract]


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