My baby is 5 months old and I am looking forward to starting solids with her in a few weeks. With my son, 3.5 years ago, we started with an infant brown rice cereal. I still think the infant cereals (whole grain please!) are useful. They are a good source of iron. But a better source is meat and alternatives. That is why my little girl’s first food is going to be buffalo!
The type of iron in meat is heme iron, of which 15-35% absorbed (depending on if your blood is low or high in iron stores). The type of iron in other sources (vegetables, beans or fortified foods like infant cereals) is non-heme. Two-20% of nonheme iron is absorbed. Absorption of nonheme iron is also decreased by dietary factors like high calcium intake, tannins in tea, and phytates in whole grains and beans. Vitamin C can increase absorption of non-heme iron though, so serving that fortified cereal with fruit is a good idea.
From 7 to 12 months, babies need 11mg of iron. This is more than an adult male! It is used to transport oxygen around the body and is important for energy and brain development. Until 6 months, most babies have enough iron stores from birth. This may depend on a few factors. For example, delayed cord clamping during birth can increase the baby’s iron status. And premature babies may have low iron, and need a supplement.
Breast milk is low in iron, yet has a high absorption rate 50%. Formulas are fortified, and about 12% of the iron is absorbed. Cow’s milk is very low in iron, and therefore should not be fed to babies before 9-12 months of age, when the baby is taking in enough iron from foods.
In the past month, I’ve taught two ‘Starting Solids’ group classes. Even though the recommendation to start with meats/alternatives is fairly standard, it still seems to shock parents. “Meat?! Isn’t it hard for babies to digest meat?” No. In fact, it is harder for them to digest grains!
Janice Joneja (an allergist and dietitian) points out that from an allergy perspective, it is also more beneficial to start babies with meat. It is likely that you know some people who are intolerant of grains – celiac disease occurs in 1 in 100 people, for example. Yet how many people do you know who are allergic to meat?
You can buy meat in baby food form at stores. Or you can also make your own. I have some frozen ground bison just waiting for this fate! Bison is higher in iron than even beef, and is leaner too.
Meat can be boiled to be cooked, as boiling adds a bit of moisture. Then just get out your food processor, blender, etc. and blend the cooked meat with some fluid. The more fluid you add, the finer the purée can be. And starting at 6 months, babies can handle a bit more texture than the super runny rice cereal.
I will be mixing the baby food with breast milk. You can add formula or water as well. The benefits of adding the breast milk include added nutrition, as well as a slightly familiar taste to your baby.
Want to know more about iron? http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron/