Getting iron is critical for babies' brain development, especially starting around six months when their natural stores become depleted. Yet baby cereal, a common first food, contains a form of iron that's not well absorbed by the body--while meat, a rich source of the more easily absorbed type of iron, is often postponed until near the end of the first year of life.
Feeding advice used to include a specific timetable of when foods should be introduced, and meat came after cereal, veggies, and fruit. "Many people don't realize that there's no evidence that introducing foods in a certain order such as veggies before fruit makes any difference at all," says Keli Hawthorne, RD, the director for clinical research for the Department of Pediatrics at Dell Medical School, University of Texas at Austin. The American Academy of Pediatrics says meat can be introduced along with other foods at six months, yet most parents wait until about nine months.
Iron is key for brain development because it's involved in creating the protective coating (called myelin) that surrounds nerve fibers in the brain. If there's not enough myelin, the brain can't function at full capacity. "This may be why we see problems with concentration and attention in school in children who are iron deficient," says Hawthorne.
Only about three percent of the iron from fortified baby cereals is available to the body, versus roughly 12-15 percent from animal foods, says Hawthorne. That's because the form of iron found in in plants, called non-heme iron, isn't as easy for the body to absorb as the heme iron in foods like meat.
But it isn't always easy to find convenient options for pureed meats. Some brands of baby food wait until their stage two or three foods to include meat. And jarred pureed meats may not look very appealing to parents.
Here's Hawthorne's advice for making sure your baby gets the iron she needs:
If jarred meat purees aren't appetizing, make your own: Blend meat into a homemade puree in a blender or food processor (use water, formula, or breast milk to thin it out). You can also blend in veggies like sweet potato, squash, or tomatoes for extra flavor.
If you're doing baby-led weaning, choose pieces of meat that are very soft, such as shredded chicken or beef or pork that has been cooked in the Instant Pot or slow cooker. Aim for a variety of meats so your baby is exposed to different flavors and textures.
Vegetarian or vegan? Be sure to pair up plant-based iron sources with vitamin C, which boosts the body's ability to soak it up. For instance, serve rice cereal with strawberries, lentils with tomatoes, and tofu with broccoli.
If your baby is exclusively breastfeeding, ask your pediatrician about using iron drops. The AAP recommends iron drops for all breastfed babies until iron-rich foods are introduced, but only 5-10 percent of babies actually get them. Unlike iron-containing formula, breast milk does not contain much of the mineral.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of