Iron is needed to make haemoglobin, which is the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen around the body. Iron is also essential for normal brain development in children. When there is insufficient iron, the red blood cells become small and pale - this is known as iron deficiency anaemia.
Usually, iron deficiency develops because a child does not get enough iron from their diet. However, there are some other less common causes, such as coeliac disease or other problems with absorption of nutrients from the bowel.
Children with iron deficiency anaemia may be tired, fail to grow at the expected rate, suffer from recurrent infections, and have learning and behavioural problems.
Most babies younger than 6 months of age will get enough iron from their body stores at birth and from breast feeding, or, if bottle fed, from iron-fortified formula. Babies who were born very prematurely, or who had a very low birth weight, are at higher risk of developing iron deficiency, so they will usually be prescribed an iron supplement.
Iron stores start to run low at about 6 months of age, so it is generally recommended to introduce iron-rich solids, such as iron-fortified rice cereal, into the diet from about 6 months. Although there is iron in breast milk, babies who are breast fed after the age of 6 months who don’t eat enough iron-rich foods are at risk of iron deficiency.
Toddlers and older children should be encouraged to eat iron-containing foods such as red meat, poultry, fish, fortified cereals and bread, and vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. Foods containing vitamin C, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits, will improve iron absorption.
Cow’s milk is low in iron. Toddlers who fill up on milk instead of food are at risk of iron deficiency.
If you suspect that your child may be deficient in iron, it is very important that you take your child to the doctor. The doctor will need to examine your child and carry out blood tests to make the diagnosis.
If the tests confirm iron deficiency anaemia, treatment will usually include an iron supplement. But too much iron can be highly poisonous, so an iron supplement must never be given to a child unless you have been instructed to do so by your doctor.
Last Reviewed: 12 January 2011