From a very young age, many children will begin to drink cow’s milk as a replacement from infant formula and/or breastmilk. But does too much cow’s milk displacing other important nutrients such as iron? Let’s take a closer look. 


After the first year, toddlers should limit the amount of cow’s milk they drink to about 500ml in 24 hours. Toddlers who drink more milk tend to miss out on key vitamins and minerals found in healthy foods, as they are too full on cow’s milk. Having too much milk with meals may also prevent your child’s ability to absorb iron from food. 


 Hemoglobin Levels in Children and Adolescents:


Mean Hemoglobin Level

-2 Standard Deviations

3-6 months

11.5 g per dL (115g per L)

9.5 g per dL (95 g per L)

6 months - 2 years

12 g per dL (125 g per L)

10.5 g per dL (105 g per L)

2 to 6 years 

12.5 g per dL (125 g per L)

11.5 g per dL

6 to 12 years

13.5 g per dL

11.5 g per dL

12 to 18 years Male

14.5 g per dL

13 g per dL

12 to 18 years Female

14 g per dL

12 g per dL



There are two types of iron: heme (found in animal foods) and non-heme (found in plant foods). Heme iron from animal sources is absorbed 2-4x better than non-heme iron from plant foods. To aid in absorption, vitamin C can be helpful when eating non-heme iron sources, for example lentils with tomatoes, or squeezing lemon on leafy greens. 


Heme Iron Rich Foods:

  1. Meats - beef, lamb, pork
  2. Offal - liver, marrow, kidneys, organ meats
  3. Poultry - chicken, turkey
  4. Fish and shellfish - sardines, salmon, tuna 


Non-Heme Iron Rich Foods:

  1. Legumes - beans, dried peas, lentils, chickpeas
  2. Wholegrains - oats, spelt, amaranth, quinoa
  3. Green leafy vegetables
  4. Dried fruit
  5. Eggs
  6. Nuts - pumpkin, sesame seeds, peanuts
  7. Tofu, tempeh
  8. Blackstrap Molasses 


Cooking with cast iron pans or using a lucky iron fish is another simple way to increase iron intake. Lastly, if you need to supplement with iron, find an iron supplement that will not cause an upset tummy or lead to constipation. Iron bis-glycinate is typically well tolerated. 


Foods That Decrease Iron Absorption:

  • Calcium, including calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Excessive fiber
  • Phytates, a compound present in most grains 
  • Oxalic Acid, which is found in foods like spinach and rhubarb
  • Polyphenols present in coffee and chocolate 


What should you look out for when thinking about iron deficiency in your children? Common Signs of Iron-Deficiency Anemia in Children include fatigue, breathlessness, behavioural problems and inability to focus, pale complexion, increased infections, loss of appetite, slowed growth rate, increased sweating, strange food cravings, for example, dirt or soap, known as pica. (3) 


So What Can You Do? 

If you suspect your child isn't getting enough iron, there are some food based approaches you can take to help correct the issue. 


First, decrease the amount of cow’s milk your child consumes per day. You can also ensure that your child is not drinking cow’s milk with other iron rich foods at meal times, as the calcium in milk can decrease the absorption of iron. 

You many want to consider iron supplementation to help fill the gaps if dietary intake is inadequate. See iron supplements here. 


By: Anabelle Clebaner MS, RDN 





Brittany Darling
Tagged: Iron