Babies do a lot of growing. In the first 12 months alone, their weight triples and their brain size doubles.
This extraordinary growth is dependent on iron, a vital mineral in blood that helps deliver oxygen throughout the body. For infants, iron is critical for brain development. A lack of enough iron can lead to physical, mental and emotional delays.
How can I be sure my baby is getting enough iron?
During well-child visits, your baby's pediatrician will evaluate him or her for signs of anemia, a deficiency of red blood cells most often caused by a lack of iron in the body, says Dr. David Hall, a board-certified pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group.
Healthy, full-term babies are usually born with enough iron to last about the first four months of life. If you are exclusively breastfeeding, your baby may need an iron supplement after four months because breastmilk doesn't contain enough iron to meet the needs of a growing body, Dr. Hall says. If you are feeding your baby with formula, which has iron added to it, he or she typically does not need a supplement.
Beginning at about six months, your baby will get iron from eating solid foods, such as iron-fortified cereals and other iron-rich foods such as meats, green leafy vegetables, beans and peas. Exclusively breastfed babies can usually stop taking the iron supplement at this point.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all babies for iron deficiency and iron-deficiency anemia at 12 months through a simple blood test. At this age, your baby may begin drinking cow's milk, which is low in iron and actually prevents the body from absorbing the mineral. They also may become more picky eaters and may consume fewer iron-rich foods.
If your baby is determined to be anemic, his or her doctor will recommend steps to increase iron intake — through dietary changes or supplemental iron drops. If the anemia continues despite iron supplementation, further testing can determine the cause.
What are the signs of iron deficiency?
Signs and symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia to watch for include:
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
- Low appetite
- Pale skin, especially around the hands, nails and eyelids
- Rapid heartbeat or a heart murmur
- Tiredness and weakness
Can I do anything while pregnant to prevent iron deficiency in my baby?
In most cases, you cannot prevent iron deficiency through dietary changes during pregnancy. Usually, deficiencies relate to your baby's diet at the time of diagnosis, Hall says.
If you are iron deficient during pregnancy, however, it can increase the risk of your baby being iron deficient due to decreased stores at birth. Your pediatrician will typically screen your baby for anemia earlier than 12 months.