10 iron-rich foods for babies

The adage that ‘food before one is just for fun’ isn’t entirely accurate. Nutrition also comes into play due to the immense growth that takes place in a baby’s first year. Iron is an important dietary mineral that is involved in various bodily functions, it’s essential in providing energy for everyday life, and is also vital for brain development.

From around 6 months of age, the iron stores that your baby was born with start to run out. Iron deficiency can result if their diet doesn’t include enough iron-rich solid food.

Parents were once advised to offer iron-fortified baby rice cereal as a first food, which is still an option if you choose, but the recommendations now from many dietitians is to include iron-rich wholefoods. For instance, did you know that you can give your baby chicken liver from 6 months? First foods don’t need to be bland or sweet, so get creative with the following sources of nutritious foods that the whole family can enjoy.

Iron-rich foods for babies (in order of most iron)

The following list of iron-rich foods (starting with those containing the most iron) have been analysed and adapted for babies by the food and feeding experts, doctors, and mummas at Solid Starts. We’ve also provided some preparation suggestions for puree and finger foods for informational purposes only (please speak to your health professional or nutritionist for advice specific to your baby):

  1. Chicken liver: Offer sliced, sauteed pieces as finger food; make a salt-free pâté and spread on bread or baby crackers; or simply cook and blend it and add it to pureed vegetables.
  2. Lentils: Mash or blend cooked red or yellow lentils and serve as is with a drizzle of olive oil; make them into a dahl with some gentle curry spices; or form them into lentil patties for finger food.
  3. Black beans: Blend cooked or canned beans, and serve as is; add olive oil or some Greek yoghurt to make a dip, and let your baby dip rice cakes or toast strips (or spread it on for them).
  4. Tahini: Made from sesame seeds, it can be spread on bread, added to fruit purees, or used in homemade salt-free hummus.
  5. Hemp seeds: Look in the healthfood section for hulled hemp seeds, and sprinkle on yoghurt or avocado slices; add to soups and casseroles; or drizzle hemp seed oil over steamed or blended vegetables.
  6. Edamame: Boil or steam and remove the beans from their pods before mashing and mixing in some healthy fats, such as avocado or olive oil; add to other vegetable dishes or serve alongside some fillets of crumbed fish.
  7. Sardines: Rinse canned sardines, and remove the backbone and other bone fragments (some hairline bones may remain but these are soft enough for your baby and contain calcium). Mash onto toast or baby crackers or mix with avocado and pre-load a spoon.
  8. Beef: Mix cooked beef mince into pureed sweet potato and green beans; or make a soft bolognese or beef and vegetable casserole.
  9. Lamb: Cook lamb mince and serve as you would beef; cook lamb chops and remove the gristle, and your baby will enjoy holding them and sucking and gumming at the meat.
  10. Mackerel: Rinse canned mackerel, remove any bones, and serve whole pieces as finger food; or flake pieces off and add to a bowl of pureed vegetables or mashed avocado.

Isn’t it surprising how high in iron some of the legumes/pulses and seeds are compared with beef and lamb? The catch, though, is that iron from animal sources is much more easily absorbed in the body than iron from plant-based foods. To help your baby absorb more iron from those foods, you can serve them with foods high in vitamin C, such as red and yellow capsicum, broccoli, and kale.

How do I know my baby is getting enough iron?

The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia in babies may include:

  • Repeat infections
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Failure to grow at the expected rate

What are the risk factors for the development of iron deficiency in babies?

  • Prematurity and low birth weight
  • Not introducing solids after 6 months (ie. only exclusively breastfeeding)
  • Low or no meat intake
  • Vegetarian and vegan eating

Tips to prevent iron deficiency in babies

  • Consume an iron rich diet during pregnancy (read how here)
  • Ask your doctor to check your iron levels
  • Breastfeed your baby or choose iron-fortified formula
  • Don’t give your baby cow’s milk
  • Don’t delay the introduction of solids foods

Where to get help

Speak to your doctor or maternal and child health nurse. Treatment for iron deficiency may include dietary changes or iron supplements (only under medical supervision as iron can be toxic in large doses, so keep supplements away from children).

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