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Iron and Your Child

Ever wonder why so many cereals and infant formulas are fortified with iron? Iron is a nutrient that's needed to make hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells (RBCs).

Red blood cells circulate throughout the body to deliver oxygen to all its cells. Without enough iron, the body can't make enough RBCs, and tissues and organs won't get the oxygen they need. So it's important for kids and teens to get enough iron in their daily diets.

How Much Iron Do Kids Need?

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

What's Iron Deficiency?

Iron deficiency (when the body's iron stores are becoming depleted) can be a problem for some kids, particularly toddlers and teens (especially girls who have very heavy periods). In fact, many teenage girls are at risk for iron deficiency — even if they have normal periods — if their diets don't contain enough iron to offset the loss of iron-containing RBCs during menstrual bleeding. Also, teen athletes lose iron through sweating and other routes during intense exercise.

After 12 months of age, toddlers are at risk for iron deficiency because they no longer drink iron-fortified formula and may not be eating iron-fortified infant cereal or enough other iron-containing foods to make up the difference.

Drinking a lot of cow's milk (more than 24 fluid ounces [710 milliliters] every day) can also put a toddler at risk of developing iron deficiency. Here's why:

Iron deficiency can affect growth and may lead to learning and behavioral problems. And it can progress to iron-deficiency anemia (a decrease in the number of RBCs in the body).

Many people with iron-deficiency anemia don't have any signs and symptoms because the body's iron supply is depleted slowly. But as the anemia progresses, some of these symptoms may appear:

If your child has any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor, who might do a simple blood test to look for iron-deficiency anemia and may prescribe iron supplements. However, because excessive iron intake can also cause health problems, you should never give your child iron supplements without first consulting your doctor.

Iron in an Everyday Diet

Although iron from meat sources is more easily absorbed by the body than that from plant foods, all of these iron-rich foods can make a diet more nutritious:

Here are other ways you can make sure kids get enough iron:

Stock up on iron-rich or fortified foods for meals and snacking, and serve some every day. And be sure to teach kids that iron is an important part of a healthy diet.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2012

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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