Iron Deficiency in Infants and Toddlers

Periodically your pediatrician will check your baby’s hemoglobin levels during a wellness visit. The reason for this is to measure your baby’s iron levels to be sure they are adequate. Low hemoglobin levels could be a clear indication of iron deficiency in infants and toddlers. Why is iron so important to check and what can you do about it?

If your baby is formula-fed then you have most likely noticed how formula containers are clearly marked that they contain iron. If you breastfeed, your doctor may recommend giving your baby a vitamin supplement that contains iron. Although, adequate consumption of iron-rich foods and continuing with prenatal vitamins while breastfeeding is often sufficient. What is it about this nutrient that is so important you see it added to formulas and foods?

Iron is responsible for ensuring your body has enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to vital organs and tissues. It also serves a purpose in brain development. A lack of iron could potentially lead to health problems and even developmental delays.

How is Iron Deficiency Detected?

Your doctor will perform a simple blood test to measure your baby’s hemoglobin levels. This is done with a single prick to obtain a sample of blood that is collected and placed in a machine. If the hemoglobin levels are low and your doctor suspects iron deficiency anemia, he/she may order additional blood tests to confirm diagnosis.

Sometimes you can get different readings of hemoglobin levels due to different labs and even timing of tests. My son once tested low for hemoglobin which led the doctor to believe he may have been anemic. Additional blood workup tests were ordered to confirm the diagnosis only to find that his levels were completely normal. Of course, I found it surprising that his levels read low in the first place, considering his diet that contained plenty of iron-fortified foods. The doctor came to the conclusion that the timing of the test could have resulted in the lower reading. When it was checked in the office it was several hours since he had last eaten and past his snack time.

Iron deficiency in infants and toddlers is not uncommon due in part that they are more susceptible. Because young children grow at such a fast rate, their bodies consistently need ample amounts of iron to fuel their growth and development. Premature infants as well as babies over 12 months of age are typically at greater risk of having low iron levels.

Preventative Tips and Treatment

Luckily, iron deficiency is one of those things that are easily treated and can even be avoided. To prevent low iron levels and in minor cases of iron deficiency, the simple solution is by providing a diet that is sufficient in iron.

For Babies:

  • Breast-feeding is ultimately better for your baby’s iron consumption because it is more easily absorbed than iron-fortified cereals
  • If formula-feeding, always give your baby a formula that is fortified with iron
  • Once you introduce solid foods, offer iron-sufficient foods such as infant cereals and pureed meats.

For Toddlers:

  • Offer your toddler iron-fortified cereal for breakfast and/or as a snack*
  • Provide a diet rich in foods that naturally contain iron including poultry, red meats, eggs, salmon, dried beans, peanut butter and dark green, leafy vegetables.
  • Give your toddler a children’s vitamin that contains iron as recommended by your doctor.

*If you have a picky eater, especially one particular about certain cereals, you can create a healthy snack by making a dry cereal mix combining an even balance of your child’s favorite cereal with iron-rich fortified cereals.

Adequate iron consumption is not only important for your child during the early stages, it is equally important during their adolescent years as well. Be sure to continue offering plenty of foods that are naturally rich in iron. The body absorbs natural forms of iron through protein sources than in plant sources and vitamins. Always consult with your child’s doctor before giving your child a supplement containing iron as too much can be just as dangerous or even fatal.

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