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Infants and toddlers are at risk for low iron

Iron is a mineral needed by our bodies to carry, store, and use oxygen. Iron is also part of many enzymes and is used in cell functions. When our bodies don’t have enough iron, many parts of our bodies are affected.

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States and is the leading cause of anemia. Anemia is dangerous because it means your body doesn’t have enough hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to other areas of the body and helps with the functioning of several organs. Young children — ages 6 months to 3 years — are at even higher risk than adults. At that age, they are experiencing rapid growth that requires higher levels of iron, and they often simply don’t get enough from their diet.

A recent study from West Virginia University indicates the problem may be bigger than experts realize. Iron deficiency often is not diagnosed until it gets bad enough for anemia to develop. This study looked for iron deficiency in young children who had not been diagnosed with anemia. The study was small, with just 57 infants and toddlers included in the results, and it was conducted in an area with higher-than-average rates of anemia. But researchers found that more than 20 percent of the children in the study were, in fact, iron deficient, and they found that 8 percent had anemia that was previously undiagnosed.

Being iron deficient puts anyone at higher risk of developing anemia, and, in infants, it can delay the development of normal activity and movement, as well as normal thinking and mental processing skills.

To prevent iron deficiency from forming in young children, take these precautions offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • If possible, breastfeed until the baby is at least a year old. At age 6 months, also feed the baby plain, iron-fortified cereal two or more times a day.
  • Don’t feed your baby milk (cow, goat or soy milk) until he or she is at least a year old. Milk is low in iron, and your baby could easily fill up on it rather than foods higher in iron.
  • If you can’t breastfeed, be sure to feed your baby an infant formula fortified with iron.
  • After age 6 months, pair foods rich in vitamin C with any foods rich in “non-heme” iron, to help with iron absorption. Foods high in non-heme iron include various fortified cereals, beans and other lentils, spinach and tomato paste. Foods rich in heme iron, which doesn’t need vitamin C to help with absorption, include beef, shrimp and organ meats.

Additional information about iron deficiency, how much iron is needed, and dietary sources for iron can be located at Nutrition for Everyone on the CDC website.

“Factors Associated With Iron Status Among WIC Infants and Toddlers in Rural West Virginia” by Cindy Fitch, West Virginia University. Full text available at

This article originally appeared in Chow Line (01/11/08), a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission, 2008.

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