Let’s rewind. I have been battling with my baby to get him to eat solids for about six months or more at this point. He is almost 15 months old and still mostly subsisting on breastmilk. This is not a good thing. My supply is way down, his growth has way slowed and he is STILL waking at night to nurse. He will take about one bite of a very select few items of food that I offer. This happens maybe three times a day. I finally make the decision to pull all night nursing sessions to force him to be hungry enough for food. I am very paranoid about this. I haven’t been able to do it before now because I was too afraid he wasn’t getting enough to eat. And I was right. He wasn’t. But once I stopped nursing him at night, voila, like magic he started eating more food. Shortly thereafter we had a doctor check-up and an iron test performed. He was significantly deficient in iron. His level was at a six and the preferred level is 12. Uh oh. Not good. To my surprise, my doctor didn’t panic. She calmly gave me a list of foods to focus on feeding him to increase his iron with nutrition and told me to come back in a month to retest. What? No iron drops? How I love having a holistic practitioner for a doctor!
Foods To Treat Iron Deficiency
There is quite a wide range of foods that are high in iron: Dark leafy greens, particularly spinach, broccoli, peas, beans of all kinds, nuts, seeds, particularly pumpkin and sesame, apricots, goji berries, beef and chicken liver, beef, turkey and chicken, clams, oysters, fish such as salmon, tuna and halibut, molasses and rice. This is not a comprehensive list, but has most of the basics with the highest iron content.
According to WebMD, “There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is derived from hemoglobin. It is found in animal foods that originally contained hemoglobin, such as red meats, fish, and poultry. Your body absorbs the most iron from heme sources.” If you are trying to treat an iron deficiency with nutrition, the route to take would be to focus on consuming foods that contain the heme sources of iron. The only sources of heme iron are animal products, and the animal products that contain the most amount of iron are chicken liver, beef liver, clams and oysters.
When I was pregnant with my son, I was borderline deficient in iron. I was advised by my midwives to avoid taking my calcium supplement with my prenatal vitamin as it blocks the absorption of iron. I was also told that Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron.
Armed with this information, I set to work. My basic regimen was to include as many of the foods listed above in every meal. I rarely fed him anything other than what I knew to be iron-rich foods. He usually got yogurt every day, but I would give that to him on its own. I never gave him dairy with any of his meals in order to avoid the calcium interrupting the iron absorption. I also made sure he was getting extra Vitamin C, and would usually give him a small dose of a kid’s Vitamin C with each meal, or serve him diluted orange juice. I also ended three meals a day with about a 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of organic blackstrap molasses. Since it is a sugar, I made sure he got it after eating his meal so it absorbed in his system more slowly in order to not spike his blood sugar. Molasses is really high in iron and I felt it was worth throwing in the mix.
We returned to the doctor after a month and his iron was already up above nine. My doctor was pleased and felt I was doing all the right things and told me to continue what I was doing. I went back a month later and it was almost at 11. We were definitely on the right track.
Check List To Increase Iron
- Avoid all dairy products during meals. If you do give dairy, choose a snack time where it is the only menu item.
- If you give a multi-vitamin, don’t give it right before or after meals if it contains calcium.
- Avoid calcium during meals, this includes orange juice or other foods/drinks that have been fortified with calcium.
- Do give a high source of Vitamin C at each meal, either a children’s C, orange juice (not fortified with calcium, freshly squeezed is best), or foods high in Vitamin C content.
- Focus on the high iron foods, such as beef and chicken liver and clams, if you can get your kids to eat them. There are some easy and delicious recipes out there for preparing these somewhat unfamiliar foods. Nourishing Traditions has a lovely recipe for chicken liver pate that is both easy and (my kid) approved. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try this sure to please fried clam recipe from Cheeseslave.
- Try throwing in a little blackstrap molasses here and there. If eating it straight off the spoon is too off-putting for your tot, you can mix it in oatmeal or pureed fruit. You can also add it to your baking in place of some of the sugar.
I included the part in the beginning about my breasfeeding dilemma because sometimes things we do may be adding to the problem. Nursing exclusively for a really extended period of time might not be best for baby, no matter what some parenting philosophies will tell you. Nursing wasn’t necessarily the problem, his refusal to eat was the problem, but that was because he was getting just enough to keep him from being uncomfortably hungry enough to eat solids. Maybe you are serving a lot of milk or yogurt with meals? Maybe you’re a vegetarian and are raising your child that way? It’s possible in these younger years that children are best served by eating high quality, humanely and sustainably raised animal products.
If your child has a serious iron deficiency, be sure to consult with your doctor about the best approach. If it is safe to forgo iron drops, I highly recommend a trial of nutrition to increase that baby’s iron level before further interventions are pursued.
Author’s note added 8/15/12: I should also state that my doctor informed me that she makes allowances down to a level 9 in iron when the baby is breastfed. Thought this information might be helpful. She was perfectly fine with the fact that we were up above a 9 with just one month of dietary changes.
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