Why Is Iron Important For Baby's Brain Health?

Learn how iron benefits baby's brain health, how much iron babies need, and which foods for baby are high in iron.

 

Once they start eating solids, it's vital for baby to consume enough iron to help them build a healthy brain. 

But how does iron benefit baby's brain health,  and how much iron do they need for their growing little mind? And what are some ways to make sure baby gets enough iron? Read on to find out.

Iron and baby's brain health

Iron is important for brain health because it's crucial in the rapid development of baby's brain and nervous system.

The brain sends signals all over the body via the nerve cells, also known as neurons. To transmit the signals to other body parts, the neurons need energy --- and they get all this energy from iron.

Because it's needed to send the brain's signals, iron is essential for the proper development of brain functions, including:

  • Learning
  • Motor development (coordination of movement)
  • Behavioral development and social-emotional growth
  • Language
  • Overall cognitive functioning and performance

As baby's brain and nervous system rapidly grow and develop --- with your little one's brain due to triple in size by age three --- iron is necessary to fuel it all. 

Without enough iron to promote healthy brain development, your little one could experience learning difficulties, motor development delays, growth problems,  and/or social-emotional development problems later in life. Studies have shown that iron deficiencies can lead to these serious negative effects, noticeable as early as preschool age and through to adolescence.

How much iron does baby need?

How much iron should baby be consuming per day for a healthy brain? The answer may surprise you.

It's recommended that babies ages 6-12 months consume 11 mg of iron per day.

That's a lot of iron needed by such a tiny body. But it makes sense, since baby's brain develops so rapidly in their first year!

Why else do 6-12 month old babies need this much iron for their brain health (and overall health)? Let's learn more below.

Making sure baby gets enough iron 

Babies are born with some iron in their bodies, but it's only enough iron for their first four to six months of life. 

Around the 4-month mark, baby's iron stores start depleting, and they need to start taking in iron as soon as they can.

If they don't start taking in enough iron by 6 months of age, their stores could become low or run out, leading to an iron deficiency. And iron deficiencies can negatively affect your little one's brain function. 

(Signs of a possible iron deficiency may include trouble breathing, lost appetite, unusual fatigue, slower growth, or missed development milestones. If you suspect baby has an iron deficiency, talk to your pediatrician as soon as possible. Most babies' iron levels will already be tested regularly between 9 months and 12 months of age.)

Unfortunately, many babies don't get enough iron, making iron deficiencies the most common nutritional deficiency at this age.

Exclusively breastfed babies need iron the most, because babies get hardly any iron from their mother's milk. It's crucial for them to get iron from another source by the 6-month mark (and possibly as early as the 4-month mark).

And if baby is formula-fed, they may consume some iron when drinking their formula.  But baby will still need iron from other sources once they reach 6 months of age --- especially if their formula is not iron-fortified.

Oatmeal: A powerhouse source of iron

Fortunately, most babies are ready for solids between  4 and 6 months of age. And oatmeal is a nutritious first solid food that's rich in iron --- one that baby can start eating immediately once they've started eating solids.

Oatmeal contains a good amount of iron on its own. But many types of oatmeal, including oatmeal meant for babies, are fortified with even more iron. This way, baby can easily consume the necessary amounts of iron each day.

Typically, one cup of uncooked, unfortified rolled oats contains around 3.5 mg of iron. But iron-fortified oatmeals contain even more iron in a serving (often, between 5 and 7 mg per serving). 

You can give baby oatmeal, in an age-appropriate form, as soon as baby is ready for solids.

Other key foods to introduce iron

But oatmeal isn't the only food baby should be eating to increase and maintain their iron stores. It's key for baby to eat a variety of nutritious foods early on to encourage healthy eating habits later in life. That certainly goes for iron-rich foods, as there are plenty!

Other iron-rich foods include:

  • Eggs 
  • Mashed or pureed soft beans 
  • Mashed or pureed peas
  • Chicken pieces
  • Turkey pieces
  • Ground beef clumps
  • Mashed or pureed sweet potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Pureed, cut, or mashed strawberries 

Learn more about the importance of iron for brain health, and how to introduce iron, here:

 

It's also key for baby to eat fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C, which help them absorb the iron present in oatmeal and other iron-rich foods.

These fruits and veggies include:

  • Pureed, cut, or smashed strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries (add them right into baby's oatmeal!)
  • Chopped or pureed kiwi (try mixing it into baby's oatmeal as well!)
  • Sweet potatoes and summer squash (puree them for creative oatmeal mix-ins!)
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Cooked and chopped bell peppers
  • Cooked and chopped broccoli and cauliflower 
  • Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens 

Be sure to prepare these foods in baby-safe ways!

You may have also heard of iron supplements for babies. They can be an option if baby is not getting enough iron from solid foods. But always talk to your pediatrician first, before giving baby iron supplements.

 

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