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Ever wonder why so many cereals and infant formulas are fortified with iron? Iron is a nutrient that's an essential part of a child's regular diet and is needed to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells (RBCs).

Red blood cells circulate throughout the body to deliver oxygen to all its cells. Without enough iron, the body can't make enough RBCs, and the body's tissues and organs won't get the oxygen they need to function well. So it's important for kids and teens to get enough iron in their daily diets.

How Much Iron Do Kids Need?

Kids require different amounts of iron at various ages and stages. Here's how much they should be getting as they grow:

  • Infants who are breastfed tend to get enough iron from their mothers until 4 to 6 months of age, when iron-fortified cereal is usually introduced (although breastfeeding mothers should continue to take prenatal vitamins). Infants who are formula-fed should get iron-fortified formula.
  • Infants ages 6 to 12 months need 11 milligrams of iron a day. Babies younger than 1 year should be given iron-fortified cereal in addition to breast milk or an infant formula supplemented with iron.
  • Kids ages 1 to 12 years need 7 to 10 milligrams of iron each day.
  • Adolescent boys should be getting 11 milligrams of iron a day and adolescent girls should be getting 15 milligrams. (Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and teen girls need additional iron to replace what they lose from their bodies monthly when they begin menstruating.)
  • Young athletes who regularly engage in intense exercise tend to lose more iron and may require extra iron in their diets.

What's Iron Deficiency?

Iron deficiency (when the body's iron stores are becoming depleted) can be a problem for some kids, particularly toddlers and teens (especially girls who experience very heavy periods). In fact, many teenage girls are at risk for iron deficiency — even if they have normal periods — if their diets don't contain enough iron to offset the loss of iron-containing red blood cells during menstrual bleeding. Also, teen athletes lose iron through sweating and other routes during intense exercise.

After 12 months of age, toddlers are at risk for iron deficiency because they no longer drink iron-fortified formula and may not be eating iron-fortified infant cereal or enough other iron-containing foods to make up the difference.

Drinking a lot of cow's milk (more than 24 fluid ounces [710 milliliters] every day) can also put a toddler at risk of developing iron deficiency. Here's why:

  • Cow's milk is low in iron.
  • Children, especially toddlers, who drink a lot of cow's milk may be less hungry and less likely to eat iron-rich foods.
  • Milk decreases the absorption of iron and can also irritate the lining of the intestine, causing small amounts of bleeding and the gradual loss of iron in the stool (poop).

Iron deficiency can affect a child's growth and may lead to learning and behavioral problems. And it can progress to iron-deficiency anemia, a condition in which there's a decrease in the number of red blood cells in the body.

Many people with iron-deficiency anemia don't have any signs and symptoms because the body's iron supply is depleted slowly. But as the anemia progresses, some of the following symptoms may appear:

  • fatigue and weakness
  • pale skin and mucous membranes
  • rapid heartbeat or a new heart murmur (detected in an exam by a doctor)
  • irritability
  • decreased appetite
  • dizziness or a feeling of being lightheaded

If your child has any of these symptoms, talk to your child's doctor; he or she may do a simple blood test to find out if your child has iron-deficiency anemia and may prescribe iron supplements. However, because excessive iron intake can also cause health problems, you should never give your child iron supplements without first consulting your doctor.

Iron in Your Family's Everyday Diet

Although the nutrient can be found in various kinds of foods, iron from meat sources is more easily absorbed by the body than iron found in plant foods.

Iron-rich foods that can make your family's diet all the more nutritious include:

  • red meat
  • dark poultry
  • tuna
  • salmon
  • eggs
  • tofu
  • enriched grains
  • dried beans and peas
  • dried fruits
  • leafy green vegetables
  • blackstrap molasses
  • iron-fortified breakfast cereals (Iron-fortified products such as cereal can be a great way to incorporate more iron in your child's diet. Offer kids whole-grain, low-sugar varieties. Although it's tempting, banning sugary cereals could make kids feel deprived. Instead, offer them only once in a while.)

In addition to serving an iron-rich diet, here are other ways you can make sure kids get enough iron:

  • Limit your child's milk intake to about 16 to 24 fluid ounces (473 to 710 milliliters) a day.
  • Continue serving iron-fortified cereal until your child is 18 to 24 months old.
  • Serve iron-rich foods alongside foods containing vitamin C — such as tomatoes, broccoli, oranges, and strawberries — which improves the body's absorption of iron.
  • Avoid serving coffee or tea at mealtime — both contain tannins that reduce iron absorption.
  • If your child or teen is a vegetarian, monitor his or her diet to make it includes sufficient iron. Because iron from meat sources is more easily absorbed than iron from plant sources, you may need to add iron-fortified foods to a vegetarian diet.

Be sure you're stocked up on iron-rich or iron-fortified foods for meals and snacking. Serve iron-rich foods every day and teach kids that iron is an important part of a healthy diet.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2005

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