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5 Tips to Get Enough Iron when using Baby-led Weaning

One of the main concerns Health Professionals have with Baby-led Weaning (BLW) is the challenge of feeding your baby iron-rich foods when starting solids.  As much as I love BLW, the concern is real.

About 10% of 12 month old babies are iron deficient. One out of 3 of my kiddos had this problem. And I believe it’s why she’s significantly shorter than the rest of our family! Anemia can lead to irreversible physical and mental effects, like delayed attention and social withdrawal. So it’s always a good idea to test your baby’s levels around 12 months, and an iron supplement will be needed if they are low.

And in contrast to a common quote: food before 1 is not just for fun. While breast milk or formula still make up the main-stay of your baby’s calories and nutrient intake, it’s important to offer nutrient-dense foods from the start. Not just fruits & veggies- something I commonly see. Beyond nutrients, solids around 6 months are important for allergy prevention, and introduce lots of tastes and textures to prevent picky eating.

Back to iron - this is the main nutrient your baby needs from food when introducing solid foods. By 6 months, your babies stores from before birth start to run out, depending on a few things such as :

  • mom’s iron levels during pregnancy,
  • delayed cord clamping at birth (increases iron levels at 6 months of age),
  • gestational age at birth. Eighty percent of babe’s iron stores are built up in the third trimester of pregnancy. Finally ONE benefit to those extra 17, 9 and 9 days I was “overdue” with my three babies!

The recommended intake of iron is 11 mg per day from 6-11 months of age. This is more than an adult male! This number is almost impossible to meet with food alone.

But the 11mg may be inflated, if you’re offering your baby more easily absorbed heme iron in meat. The 11mg/day recommendation was calculated using an absorption rate of 10%, which may be lower than the amount absorbed from meat. Heme iron from beef for example, can have an absorption rate around 34% or more (depending on your iron levels). Basically, heme iron from meat is absorbed 2x that of non-heme iron from fortified or non-meat (fortified & plant sources) of iron.

Is it even possible to get adequate amounts of iron when using BLW? The Baby-led Introduction to Starting SolidS (BLISS) study looked at this. Two-hundred families from New Zealand were split into either the BLISS group (started solids via BLW with education and support on how to do it safely), and control group. One of the studies published was titled Impact of a modified version of baby-led weaning on iron intake and status: a randomised controlled trial.” The iron intake between the two groups didn’t differ significantly at ages 7 or 12 months of age. And again, there was no significant difference between their iron levels or anemia at ages 12 months. Which is great news! With some extra education about how to safely practice BLW, it can be a nutritious method to starting solids.

Where do moms go wrong when starting solids with Baby-led Weaning? It’s super-common to just offer fruits and veggies, for one. And while nutritious, they don’t have enough calories or nutrients to be your baby’s main source of food (beyond breastmilk).

Here are 5 tips to make sure your baby gets enough iron while using Baby-led Weaning:

  1. Offer a source of iron at each meal (two times per day when starting): scrambled eggs, black beans, tofu, cooked spinach, clams, oysters, liver, fish, beef, bison (higher in iron than beef!), chicken (dark meat is higher in iron than white) or pork. 
  2. Offer fortified powder infant cereal baked into finger foods. You can also sub half of the flour in your pancake recipes for fortified infant cereal. Check out one recipe below.
  3. Include a source of vitamin C in the meal, to increase absorption. Top fortified pancakes or cereal with fruit compote, serve lentils in stewed tomatoes and add spinach to a fruit smoothie.
  4. Offer finger-friendly fortified cereals such as Nutrios or Toodle-O’s
  5. Use pureed meat as a spread or dip on toast or crackers (sort of like pate!).

Peanut Butter Cereal Fingers

1/2 cup iron-fortified infant cereal (or plain oats)

1/2 cup natural peanut butter

1/2 cup breast milk or cow’s milk

  • Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  • Mix together all ingredients and place in tablespoon-sized blobs on a baking sheet. You can form them into “stick” or “finger” shapes, so they will be easy for your baby to grasp.
  • Bake for about 20 minutes.

 Want more Baby Led Weaning tips? Click here to register for my free "How to get started with Baby Led Weaning" webinar.

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