Breastfeeding is best for mothers and their babies, according to many authorities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But some moms may worry that they're not getting sufficient nutrients to pass along to their babies. One important nutrient is iron, which promotes healthy brain function and cell oxygenation. Knowing whether a normal diet can supply enough iron or a supplement is needed can help a new mom get off to a good start.
Importance of Iron
Iron is necessary to make hemoglobin, which cycles oxygen through your blood to your body's cells, says pediatrician Dr. William Sears. Without sufficient iron, red blood cells don't carry enough oxygen to vital organs and muscles. Iron is also crucial for brain function and development; neurotransmitters, which carry messages from one nerve to another, need sufficient iron to function properly.
Iron Needs for Babies and Mothers
People need different amounts of iron at different points in their lives. For instance, a baby receives and stores iron from his mother while still in the womb and is born with a large supply that should last at least six months, according to Dr. Sears. After six months, the baby's considerable iron stores begin to dwindle; your pediatrician may check your baby's hemoglobin levels at that time. Iron needs ebb and flow for you, too. You lose blood during childbirth and for five to six weeks afterward. You may become slightly anemic, according to "Parenting" magazine. A woman who breastfeeds exclusively usually doesn't menstruate, so she doesn't lose blood and doesn't need as much iron.
Iron Supplements for Breastfed Babies
"Human milk contains relatively small amounts of iron, but it is very well absorbed, so breastfed babies rarely need iron supplements," says Dr. Sears. In fact, introducing iron supplements and iron-fortified foods, especially during a baby's first six months, can actually decrease the effectiveness of the baby's natural iron absorption, according to lactation consultant Kelly Bonyata of the KellyMom website.
Iron supplements for Breastfeeding Women
If you eat a reasonably healthy diet, vitamin supplements are not necessary. A balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads and cereals, calcium-rich dairy products and protein-rich foods such as meats, fish, and legumes should provide an adequate amount of essential nutrients. "Getting your daily iron from food is preferable to taking iron supplements, which sometimes cause abdominal discomfort and constipation," says Dr. Sears.
Dr. Andrew Weil, author and integrative medicine specialist, suggests a number of different foods to maintain or boost iron levels, including red meat, chicken and fish, whole grains, beans, prunes and leafy green vegetables such as kale and chard. Other foods -- fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C or fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut -- actually augment the absorption of iron, so they should be eaten at meals with iron-rich foods. Dr. Weil also recommends avoiding foods that can block iron absorption, including caffeinated beverages, eggs, milk and bran.
Check with your health-care professional before taking an iron supplement, the Mayo Clinic advises. Taking large amounts of a dietary supplement while breastfeeding may be harmful to you or the baby.