Iron for toddlers and children
Iron is an important mineral needed from food. It is mostly found in the blood to move oxygen around the body. There are 2 types of iron found in our diet:
- Haem iron
- Non-haem iron
Children need to eat a variety of foods that contain iron every day to make sure they have enough iron in their body. If babies and children don’t get enough iron, they may develop a condition called iron deficiency anaemia. This can cause tiredness, headache, loss of appetite, or repeated infections.
Babies and children at risk of low iron stores are:
- babies who are not eating solids from 6 months
- children who drink large volumes of milk. Milk is a poor source of iron and also makes it harder for your body to absorb iron from food. Children who drink too much milk may not be hungry to eat a variety of other foods
- children who do not eat red meat on a regular basis (less than 2 to 3 times per week)
- picky/fussy eaters who have little variety in their diet
- children who are born prematurely who have not developed good iron stores
- children who are vegetarian/vegan.
Best sources: haem iron
Haem iron is the best source of iron. It is found in animal foods and is well absorbed by the body. Foods that contain haem iron include:
- meats such as beef, lamb or pork
- poultry such as chicken or turkey
- fish and shellfish, sardines, salmon/tuna
- offal such as liver and kidney.
Good sources: non-haem iron
Non-haem iron is found in plant foods. It is less well absorbed than animal sources of iron (haem). Foods that contain non-haem iron include:
- wholegrain foods (e.g. bread, rolled oats and breakfast cereals)
- breakfast cereals enriched with iron
- legumes (e.g. baked beans, dried peas, beans and lentils)
- green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach and broccoli)
- dried fruit (e.g. sultanas, apricots, dates or prunes)
- peanut butter
- nuts—whole nuts are not recommended for children younger than 3 years of age.
Iron from these foods can be better absorbed by the body if they are eaten with a food from the list ‘Best sources: haem iron’ or foods containing vitamin C.
Foods containing vitamin C
Iron absorption can be improved by eating foods high in vitamin C with iron foods. Here are some foods high in vitamin C to include in your child’s diet:
- citrus fruits (e.g. oranges)
- tropical fruits (e.g. pineapple and kiwi fruit)
- berries (e.g. strawberries)
- some vegetables (e.g. capsicum, tomatoes, cabbage or broccoli).
Here are some examples of pairing vitamin C and iron foods:
- porridge or wholegrain cereal with berries
- stir-fry with lean meat and mixed vegetables (spinach, capsicum, cabbage, broccoli)
- hummus dip with sticks of capsicum.
Try some of these ideas to boost your child's iron intake
- Offer red-meat dishes like minced meat (beef or lamb) sauce over pasta, meatballs, rissoles, shepherd’s pie or slow cooked beef or lamb. Offer these 3 times per week.
- Dried fruit or nuts (use nut pastes or crushed nuts if younger than 3 years of age) as snacks. Try spreading nut pastes on toast or crackers.
- Thicken homemade soups with dried peas, beans or lentils.
- Use wholemeal breads rather than white. Choose wholegrain cereals like bran flakes.
- Serve baked beans or fresh meat on wholemeal/wholegrain toast with fruit in the same meal (or occasionally with a small glass of 100% fruit juice).
- Choose a breakfast cereal with added iron (e.g. baby rice cereal, Weetbix) and add some berry fruits to assist iron uptake.
- Use vegetables high in vitamin C (e.g. capsicum, tomato, celery, broccoli) with meals such as in pasta, stir-fry, or a side salad.
- Try making your own hummus dip.
Your child may be prescribed iron supplements by your doctor if their iron stores are too low.
- Continue to take these as per medical advice, in addition to iron-rich meals and snacks.
- Iron supplements may cause stomach cramps, constipation, nausea and vomiting for the first few days as the body adjusts to the medication. Iron can cause the stools to turn black in colour. This is due to unabsorbed iron and is not harmful.
- Inform your doctor if your child develops: severe stomach pains, chest pain, clammy skin, bluish-coloured lips or fingernails.
- Iron is toxic in large doses.
- Avoid the temptation to self-diagnose and give your child over-the-counter iron supplements.
- In young children, 20mg per day is the safe upper limit. However, most iron supplements contain about 100mg per tablet!
- Iron tablets are also often mistaken as lollies by children. Take extra care to keep iron supplements tightly capped and out of children's reach.
It is important that you see your doctor if you suspect that your child may be iron deficient.
Resources for parents, families and carers
Growing Strong—Iron rich foods for babies and growing children (PDF, 790kB), Queensland Government
Brochure: Healthy eating for children (PDF, 3.35MB), Australian Government
Brochure: Giving your baby the best start (PDF, 350kB), Australian Government
Information is drawn from:
- National Health and Medical Research Council, 2012, Australian dietary guidelines.
- Nutrition Education Materials Online, 2016, Iron for toddlers and children.
This information is also the result of input and effort from many health professionals in Queensland. Their assistance with the content is greatly appreciated.
This information is provided as general information only and should not be relied upon as professional or medical advice. Professional and medical advice should be sought for particular health concerns or events. Best efforts have been used to develop this information, which is considered correct and current in accordance with accepted best practice in Queensland as at the date of production. The State of Queensland (Queensland Health) does not accept liability to any person for the information provided in this fact sheet nor does it warrant that the information will remain correct and current. The State of Queensland (Queensland Health) does not promote, endorse or create any association with any third party by publication or use of any references or terminology in this fact sheet.