Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States. Iron is important for at least three reasons:
- to prevent anemia
- to optimize intellectual development of children (iron deficient children exhibit impaired cognitive and motor development)
- to decrease risk for lead toxicity (lead absorption is enhanced in the presence of iron deficiency)
Not all deficits from iron deficiency or lead toxicity are reversible with treatment.
For the first 12 months of life, babies need either the iron in breastmilk, or iron-fortified formula. Why?
Cow's milk contains only a negligible amount of iron, and it is poorly absorbed. Iron-fortified formula is recommended.
Although breast milk also contains only small amounts of iron, 50% of that iron is absorbed by the baby, better iron absorption than from any other food.
Iron is poorly absorbed from many common dietary sources such as iron-fortified infant cereals.
Intake of solid food decreases the bioavailability of iron in breastmilk. Therefore, even breastfed infants should receive iron from supplementation when they begin to eat solid foods. For families who will feed their infants meat proteins, these should be introduced early.
Cow's milk can cause colitis in some children with subclinical loss of blood in the stool, further exacerbating iron deficiency.
WIC and Iron
Because of high rates of iron deficiency in the US, in the 1970's, the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program was developed for low income families. The mission of WIC is this:
To safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutritional risk, by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care.
WIC is authorized to supply only iron-containing formulas.
WIC supplies dietary food vouchers for lactating mothers, and in many centers, also electric breast pumps.