What You Should Know about Breast Milk and Iron

What You Should Know about Breast Milk and Iron

Breast milk is the most wholesome first food for your baby which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first four to six months of your baby’s life. Breast milk contains vast nutrients that your baby needs to thrive. However, breast milk is low in one key nutrient: iron. Today we’re examining what you should know about breast milk and iron including why breast milk is low in iron, how much iron your baby needs, and the best ways to ensure your baby is getting the right amount of breast milk and iron.

Why do our bodies need iron?

Iron is an essential mineral that produces hemoglobin, the protein that allows oxygen to travel through the bloodstream to all areas of our body. Obviously we need oxygen to survive and it also gives us energy. Iron deficiency can not only cause fatigue, but also prohibit bodies from functioning properly or at their maximum capacity. Signs of iron deficiency in babies include being underweight, slow weight gain, lethargy, crankiness, pale skin and lack of appetite.

Why is breast milk low in iron?

The truth is all animal milk and even iron-fortified baby formulas are pretty low in iron. It may seem peculiar why breast milk, the superfood of all superfoods, is low in iron when it is incredibly jam-packed with so many other nutrients. Scientists are not sure why breast milk is low in iron but they have a few theories. One is that umbilical cords are usually clamped within a minute after birth. This is a relatively new practice and allows less blood and plasma to get to the baby. Another theory is people used to sleep on the ground and walk on and handle iron-rich dirt more often. Yet another hypothesis is that as breast milk evolved to meet the needs of human babies, it lost some iron content because iron can only survive and reproduce with the help of bacteria. This theory therefore purports that less iron helps protect infants from bacterial infections.

While all first food choices are low in iron, breast milk is still the best option. That’s because more iron is absorbed by babies who are breastfed due to the other incredible nutrients of breast milk. Having nutrients in food is wonderful but it only does a body good if they are absorbed. Breast milk contains vitamin C and lactose, both of which help babies absorb more iron. Breastfed babies retain 50-70% of the iron they get through breast milk. Additionally, because breast milk is easier on the digestive track, babies lose less iron through their bowels.

How much iron does a baby need?

Amazingly, babies are born with iron storage of approximately 6 months. This is one reason why the APA recommends exclusive breastfeeding at the beginning of life despite the low iron content of breast milk. Full term babies generally are not lacking iron during their first half year. After that, iron is introduced in the diet naturally through solid foods including baby cereals, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. It is recommended that babies get around 11 mg of iron per day and ensuring your baby gets plenty of vitamin C will also help iron absorption.

Should breastfed babies take iron supplements?

Most exclusively breastfed babies do not need iron supplementation. Some exceptions may include premature babies, babies born under 6.5 pounds, babies that drink lots of cow’s milk (rather than breast milk or iron-fortified formula) in their first year, and babies whose mothers had diabetes during pregnancy and neglected to manage blood sugar and insulin properly. Also, introducing solids too soon can interrupt a baby’s capacity to retain iron. These risk factors sometimes lead to the need for iron supplements. Somewhat surprisingly, babies born to mothers who have anemia do not show an increased risk for iron deficiency.

If you are concerned that your baby is iron deficient, consult your pediatrician. A simple blood test can determine if your baby needs more iron. As always, we hope this information on breast milk and iron helps you make informed choices for your baby!

Sources: KellyMom, Momtastic Wholesome Babyfood, Science of Mom and WebMD