Why children need iron

a little boy riding his bike

Iron is an essential nutrient that's needed to make haemoglobin, the component of red blood cells responsible for carrying oxygen. Red blood cells circulate throughout the body to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Iron is also needed to activate a key enzyme in energy production from the metabolism of food.

Ensuring adequate levels of iron is important for everyone, but especially active, growing bodies. The rapid growth of infants and young children imposes large iron requirements at a time when their diet may contain only marginal amounts. It's therefore not uncommon to find inadequate iron intake among infants and preschool-age children. Sufficient iron in early childhood can help with normal brain and behavioural development. On the contrary, inadequate iron intake can affect cognitive development and is associated with poorer mental performance. Low iron intake in kids may also lead to:

  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Decreased general health and wellbeing
  • Inefficient immune system function

How much iron do kids need?

Children require different amounts of iron at various ages and stages. Here's how much they should be getting everyday as they grow:1

  • Infants 0-6 months require 0.2mg of iron daily. Infants of this age usually have sufficient iron stores and can obtain enough to meet their daily needs through breast milk or formula.
  • Infants 7-12 months need 11mg/day.
  • Children 1-3 years of age require 9mg of iron daily.
  • Children 4-8 years of age require 10mg/day.
  • Children 9-13 years of age need 8mg/day.

How to include enough iron in an everyday diet

Iron is found in a variety of foods that should be included as part of a healthy diet in children. Iron from meat sources is more easily absorbed than from plant foods, but plant sources should still be consumed to ensure a balanced and nutritious diet. Iron's absorption from plant sources can be enhanced by foods containing vitamin C such as broccoli, oranges, tomatoes and strawberries. Ironrich, kid-friendly foods include:2

  • Beef, chicken and turkey
  • White beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and green peas
  • Eggs
  • Sardines and tuna
  • Tofu
  • Pistachios and cashews
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Potatoes
  • Iron-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals or bread

Does my child need an iron supplement?

As kids have high iron requirements due to their rapid growth, a supplement with iron may be beneficial to top up their daily intake, especially if they're going through a period of fussy eating or eat a mainly vegetarian diet. This will ensure they get the iron their bodies need to deliver oxygen to their tissues, support their brain development and help reduce tiredness, fatigue and irritability. Try a specialised kids' multivitamin with iron to boost their iron consumption and fill other nutritional gaps in their diet.