Two Key Nutrients Your Baby Needs to Thrive

When you have a baby, there are many inevitable challenges from giving birth, to learning to breastfeed and establishing a sleep pattern - it’s perfectly normal to lack confidence or find these experiences challenging or to be overwhelmed by making choices about what to do. Introducing solids is no different. This is a time of learning for both you and your baby.

In this article, I’m going to show you how you can ensure you are giving your baby the nutrients they need to thrive when you start to introduce them to solids.

Up until 6 months, breastmilk or formula are the primary source of nutrition for your baby. But at around 6 months of age, there are two key nutrients that you need to start introducing through food, as your baby’s stores of these vital nutrients start to deplete at around 6 months.  These are iron and zinc.

 

Iron

Babies are born with a reserve of iron, which comes from their mothers blood while they are in utero. For the first 6 months of life, babies will get the iron they need from breast milk or formula, but after this time, their iron stores start to deplete.

Iron is critical to your baby because it’s vital to brain development and they also needs iron to transport oxygen through the blood to all the cells in their body. Iron is also an essential nutrient for many beneficial gut microbes.

When they don’t have enough iron, red blood cells become small and pale, a condition called anemia. This condition means they can’t carry enough oxygen to their body’s organs and muscles and they may be slow to gain weight, have pale skin, no appetite or be irritable and fussy.

 

Iron is even more important if your baby; 

  • Was born prematurely - babies get the majority of their iron supplies from their mother during the third trimester of pregnancy
  • Or they had a low birth weight - less than 3000 grams could have reduced iron stores at birth 

 

Or if you;

  • Have Diabetes or had Gestational Diabetes during pregnancy
  • Were anemic or had low iron levels during pregnancy.

 

So as I’ve mentioned, your baby is born with enough iron to sustain them for the first 6 months of life, but after this, their stores of this vital nutrient start to deplete.  As you can’t increase the iron levels in your breastmilk, it’s vital to give your baby iron-rich foods when you start to introduce solids in addition to breastmilk or formula.

Now you probably already knew that iron was important because there’s a lot of information about giving your baby iron fortified cereal as their first food. You will see a huge range of baby foods in the supermarket that say “suitable from 4 months” or “Rich in iron for growth and development”. These cereals are “iron fortified” - that means they have iron added to them.

I don’t recommend giving your baby iron fortified cereals for a couple of  reasons;

  • The form of iron used in fortified cereals is poorly absorbed by your baby’s gut and may actually cause inflammation in their immature gut.
  • Because it is not absorbed well, these types of iron have been shown to feed “bad” bacteria in the gut. This can  lead to an imbalance of bacteria, which can increase the risk of infection or overgrowth of “bad” bacteria or pathogens. 

Zinc

As with iron, zinc can not be increased through breast milk and your baby’s stores of zinc are also starting to deplete by around 6 months. Zinc is not stored for long periods of time in the body so we need to have a daily supply of zinc from our diet. This makes it even more  important to include zinc rich foods regularly when you start solids with your baby.  

Zinc is a trace mineral that is involved on over 70 enzyme reactions in the body that are connected to growth, metabolism and digestion and it plays an important role in child development.  

 

Zinc is important for the following functions in the body:

  • Proper immune function
  • Gut health and the digestion and absorption of food
  • Mental clarity and function
  • Skin health, hair growth and wound healing
  • Hormone balance and reproduction
  • DNA synthesis

 

Zinc is even more important if your baby;

  • Was born prematurely - babies get the majority of their zinc supplies from their mother during the third trimester of pregnancy
  • They are a boy
  • Have allergies 

 

Or if you;

  • were zinc deficient during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to inadequate dietary intake (e.g. vegan, vegetarian) or
  • Have gastrointestinal issues

 

If your baby does not have enough zinc, they have an increased risk of low immunity and recurring infections, eczema, allergies, neurological disorders, motor development and coordination issues, behavioural changes, low appetite and fussy eating.

Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent iron and zinc rich “real food” options to feed your baby. Babies will get the most iron and zinc from meat, but it’s best  to include a variety of iron and zinc-rich foods to meet their requirements. Here are 5 great iron and zinc rich foods to choose from that are also great for gut health. 

Red meat

You can cook up some beef or lamb mince, then puree with some breastmilk or formula, or offer strips of meat that hold together well for your baby to feed themselves  - juice obtained from sucking on a piece of meat provides sufficient iron and zinc

Dark poultry

Thighs and drumsticks have more iron than breast meat. Again, you can cook and puree the meat, or offer your baby thin stips to feed themselves.

Egg yolks

Well cooked egg yolks mashed with a little breastmilk or formula or egg yolks scrambled are a great first food that is full of both iron and zinc.

Pulses (beans, lentils & peas)

Both chickpeas and lentils are excellent sources of plant-based iron and zinc and also excellent for your gut bacteria. Blend up cooked chickpeas with some cooked sweet potato for some delicious hummus or serve cooked yellow or green lentils as finger foods.   

Sweet potato

Sweet potato is a great first food for babies and is packed with iron and zinc. Sweet potato can be pureed or mashed or made into fries for the perfect finger food.

 

Things to remember

  • Start introducing iron and zinc rich foods around 6 months
  • Always offer breast milk or formula first. This is still their primary source of nutrition until at least 12 months of age.
  • Offer a variety of iron and zinc rich foods
  • Offer your baby their food in the morning, after their breakfast or mid-morning feed. By offering at this time of day, you are more likely to see if they have any reactions to the foods.

 

And always remember, you know your baby better than anyone else. If you are concerned about your baby’s growth, please see your child health nurse or GP.

 

Need a little more help with introducing solids?

If you would like step-by-step guidance and support from me you may be interested in my "Get it Right From Their First Bite" program for introducing solids. Check it out here. 

 

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