Research reveals gaps in understanding of iron as first food for babies


By Carol Harrison, RD

July 7, 2023

When should babies start eating iron-rich meat foods? Sooner than you might think! Babies are born with a store of iron, but this is used up by the time they are 6 months old. At that point, they must get iron from food, it’s absolutely critical for their growth and well-being. But not all iron-containing foods are created equal. In general, red meat is a better source of iron than other iron-containing foods like infant cereal or beans, or eggs. Why? Red meat is high in the type of iron (“heme iron”) that is well-used by the body. That’s really important for new parents to know yet recent research has found this and other facts about iron are poorly understood.

Why do babies need iron?

Iron is critical to a baby’s growth, including brain development. Babies who don’t have enough iron—a condition called “iron deficiency”—may develop slowly and be less active. Iron is also needed to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body’s muscles, organs, and brain. If a baby doesn’t have enough iron, the red blood cells can’t do their job as well—a condition called “iron-deficiency anemia.”

Unfortunately, research has shown that many parents have knowledge gaps when it comes to babies’ iron needs. In early 2023, an online survey of 353 Canadian moms found that most respondents (83%) knew that babies need iron-rich foods every day. However, a lot of them weren’t aware of other key details, including the potential impact of iron deficiency and the best food sources of iron, such as beef and other meats.

The survey, conducted by Leger on behalf of Canada Beef, found that:

  • 50% of respondents were unaware that iron deficiency in infants is associated with irreversible developmental delays.
  • 47% didn’t know that the risk of iron deficiency increases from 6 to 12 months of age.
  • 63% did not know that high intakes of cow’s milk is a risk factor for iron deficiency. (Cow’s milk is not recommended before a baby is 9 to 12 months old—it is low in iron, and the calcium in cow’s milk inhibits iron absorption.)
  • 46% of respondents believed that before a baby is one year old, food is mostly for fun. In fact, Health Canada recommends introducing solid foods at 6 months, starting with foods that contain iron, and offering it a few times daily.

What are the best food sources of iron?

The survey also found that many Canadians don’t know which foods are the best sources of iron.

  • When shown a list of iron-containing foods, 76% did not identify beef as the best source of iron.
  • 45% did not know that the iron in meats (“heme iron”) is better absorbed than the iron found in plant-based foods (“non-heme iron”).
  • Nearly a quarter (23%) of respondents thought that vegetables are the best source of iron. Dark green vegetables, such as spinach, do contain iron, but it’s less than the amount of iron in meat and less easily absorbed.

Start offering baby meats right at 6 months

The survey showed low awareness of when parents can introduce meat to their babies. More than half of respondents (61%) didn’t know that Health Canada recommends meat as a first solid food for babies. Nearly half (45%) of survey respondents thought that parents should wait until a baby is around 9 months old before trying meat. There is no advantage to waiting until 9 months, in fact because infants’ iron needs are so high, it is advantageous to introduce iron-rich red meat right at 6 months when we know their iron stores are near depletion.

Learn more about babies and iron including recipes and tips for preparing beef for baby:

Iron for Baby Brochure

Baby at the table: Iron rich meals and recipes

Canadian Paediatric Society: Iron needs of babies and children

Health Canada: Infant nutrition

Dietitians of Canada: Video: Iron rich foods for babies

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