The Role of Iron in Formula

Iron is an essential mineral to your baby’s growth and development. It is vital to the blood supply, helping to create the hemoglobins that carry oxygen through the blood. Most formulas today are fortified with iron, in accordance with AAP recommendations for preventing an iron deficiency, or anemia, in babies. There are some concerns regarding iron in formula, usually in relation to constipation or other stomach problems; however, the recommendation is still to choose iron-fortified formula over low-iron versions.

Iron in Formula vs. Breast Milk

Some advocates of lower iron formulas argue that breast milk contains far less iron than the average fortified formula. This is true; however, the iron in breast milk is much more easily absorbed by and used by a baby’s body than that found in formula. Therefore a lower amount can have a greater effect. Some doctors do recommend an iron supplement for breast fed babies, but the research is not yet clear on how helpful this is in preventing anemia.

Does Iron in Formula Cause Gastrointestinal Distress?

The main reason why parents choose to switch to a low-iron formula is the belief that the iron in the formula is responsible for such problems as colic, constipation, gas and diarrhea. Because iron supplements in adults can cause constipation, it seems like a logical conclusion that iron would have the same effect on a baby. The research on the topic, however, discredits this belief. There is no evidence of any difference in any of the above issues between babies fed iron-fortified formula and those fed low-iron versions of the same formula.

There is, however, a difference between breastfed babies and formula fed babies in levels of constipation and gas, as well as other stomach issues. This is not because of levels of iron, however, but because breast milk is much easier for the baby’s body to digest than formula. It is also used so effectively by the body that it often leaves less waste to clog up the baby’s system.

The Benefits of Iron in Formula

Since manufacturers started adding iron to formula in the 1970’s, the rate of anemia in infants has dropped dramatically, from 20% to 3% of formula fed babies. Iron is vital to your growing baby’s health, allowing the creation of new red blood cells.

At this time, the AAP recommends that you use a formula fortified with iron, if you are not breastfeeding your baby. Formulas with higher amounts of iron are a better choice because a very small amount of the total iron is actually absorbed and used by the body. Cow’s milk formulas have an absorption rate of only about 12% of iron, while soy formulas are even lower. Compared to the 50% rate of absorption from human milk, it becomes obvious why adding iron to formula is necessary to provide baby with an adequate supply of iron.

At this time, there is no evidence to support the use of low-iron formulas, but despite efforts to educate new parents, low-iron formulas are still available and are still being chosen by parents based on inaccurate information. If you have concerns about iron in your baby’s diet, talk to your pediatrician. It is difficult to see a baby suffering from gastrointestinal distress, but blaming it on iron and removing this important nutrient from baby’s diet can have a damaging effect on health and is unlikely to improve the problem.

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