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.

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.

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

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.

Too little iron can impair your child's ability to function. However, most signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in children don't appear until iron deficiency anemia occurs. If your child has risk factors for iron deficiency, talk to his or her doctor.

Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia might include:

  • Pale skin
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Slow cognitive and social development
  • Inflammation of the tongue
  • Difficulty maintaining body temperature
  • Increased likelihood of infections
  • Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or pure starch

Take steps to prevent iron deficiency in your child by paying attention to his or her diet. For example:

  • Breast-feed or use iron-fortified formula. Breast-feeding until your child is age 1 is recommended. Iron from breast milk is more easily absorbed than is the iron found in formula. If you don't breast-feed, use iron-fortified infant formula. Cow's milk isn't a good source of iron for babies and isn't recommended for children younger than age 1.
  • Encourage a balanced diet. When you begin serving your baby solids — typically between ages 4 months and 6 months — feed him or her foods with added iron, such as iron-fortified baby cereal. For older children, good sources of iron include red meat, chicken, fish, beans and dark green leafy vegetables. Between ages 1 and 5, don't allow your child to drink more than 24 ounces (710 milliliters) of milk a day.
  • Enhance absorption. Vitamin C helps promote the absorption of dietary iron. You can help your child absorb iron by offering foods rich in vitamin C — such as melon, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes.
  • Consider iron supplements. If your baby was born prematurely or with a low birth weight or you're breast-feeding a baby older than 4 months and he or she isn't eating two or more servings a day of iron-rich foods, talk to your child's doctor about oral iron supplements.

Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia are typically diagnosed through blood tests. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants be tested for iron deficiency anemia starting between ages 9 months and 12 months and, for those who have risk factors for iron deficiency, again at later ages. Depending on the screening results, your child's doctor might recommend an oral iron supplement or a daily multivitamin or further testing.

Iron deficiency in children can be prevented. To keep your child's growth and development on track, pay attention to how much iron your child is getting through his or her diet and talk to your child's doctor about the need for screenings and iron supplements.

Feb. 18, 2014