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Ask Dr. Sears: Treating Anemia

Q. Our baby has anemia. What causes it -- and how can we keep him healthy?

Anemia means your baby's number of red blood cells -- which carry oxygen to muscles and vital organs -- is lower than normal. The most common cause of it in babies is an iron-deficient diet. Without enough iron (which helps produce hemoglobin, a protein in these cells), the blood gets "tired" and, consequently, so does your baby's body.

Iron-deficient anemia may also contribute to cognitive delays, since iron helps the trillions of nerve cells in a baby's rapidly growing brain make the right connections. Anemic babies often have suppressed immune systems as well, which is why they tend to get more colds.

Anemia is common between 6 and 9 months, when the extra iron your baby stored up in the womb begins to be used up and must be replaced. While breast milk contains the highest-quality iron of any food, there isn't enough of it in mother's milk, so you may need to ask your doctor about supplementing with iron drops. Bottle-feeders should always use an iron-fortified formula. Cow's milk is low in iron, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until a baby is at least a year old to introduce it into his diet. You can, however, feed him iron-rich foods. The best ones for babies over 6 months: pureed beef, lamb, dark-meat poultry, and iron-fortified cereals.