Iron deficiency in children: Prevention tips for parents

Iron deficiency in children can affect development and lead to anemia. Find out how much iron your child needs, the best sources of iron and more.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Is your child getting enough iron in his or her diet? Find out what causes iron deficiency in children, how to recognize it and how to prevent it.

Why is iron important for children?

Iron is a nutrient that's essential to your child's growth and development. Iron helps move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and helps muscles store and use oxygen. If your child's diet lacks iron, he or she might develop a condition called iron deficiency.

Iron deficiency in children can occur at many levels, from depleted iron stores to anemia — a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells. Untreated iron deficiency in children can cause physical and mental delays.

How much iron do children need?

Babies are born with iron stored in their bodies, but a steady amount of additional iron is needed to fuel a child's rapid growth and development. Here's a guide to iron needs at different ages:

Age group Recommended amount of iron a day
7 - 12 months 11 mg
1 - 3 years 7 mg
4 - 8 years 10 mg
9 - 13 years 8 mg
14 - 18 years, girls 15 mg
14 - 18 years, boys 11 mg

What are the risk factors for iron deficiency in children?

Infants and children at highest risk of iron deficiency include:

  • Babies who are born prematurely — more than three weeks before their due date — or have a low birth weight
  • Babies who drink cow's milk before age 1
  • Breast-fed babies who aren't given complementary foods containing iron after age 6 months
  • Babies who drink formula that isn't fortified with iron
  • Children ages 1 to 5 who drink more than 24 ounces (710 milliliters) of cow's milk, goat's milk or soy milk a day
  • Children who have certain health conditions, such as chronic infections or restricted diets
  • Children ages 1 to 5 who have been exposed to lead

Adolescent girls also are at higher risk of iron deficiency because their bodies lose iron during menstruation.

Feb. 18, 2014 See more In-depth