Why babies need it
Iron is critical for brain development -- research shows a lack of this mineral can lead to thought-processing and motor deficiencies. The good news is that infants are born with large iron stores, usually enough to satisfy their needs until 4 to 6 months of age. Premature babies, however, may miss out on some or all of the significant iron accumulation that occurs during the last trimester of pregnancy. This, coupled with their "catch-up" growth rates, may deplete their supply by two to three months. If your baby was born early, ask your pediatrician if she needs an iron supplement.
Formula meets iron needs for the first year, but breast milk doesn't, which is why pediatricians recommend introducing high-iron food early on in the second half of the first year, when you start your baby on solid foods (just remember to always finely chop round, firm foods until your child is 4 to avoid choking hazards). At 7 to 12 months, babies need 11 milligrams of elemental iron per day, and by 1 to 3 years old, 7 milligrams daily.
Serve it up
After your baby is 6 months old, two servings of iron-fortified baby cereal (one-half ounce each) provide the 11 milligrams your baby needs, so make cereal your go-to first solid food. Meat, poultry and fish are naturally iron-packed; try giving ground beef or turkey, chicken and halibut to your little eater. Other rich sources include avocado, baked potato, broccoli, chickpeas, eggs, prunes, soybeans and spinach.
Good to know
Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency among U.S. children. To prevent it, make sure your pediatrician screens your baby for iron-deficiency anemia at 12 months and 18 months.