Are Iron Supplements Safe for Children?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 14, 2023
3 min read

For both children and adults, iron is an important mineral for growth and development. Iron is found naturally in some foods and is also available in over-the-counter supplements.

Especially for rapidly growing children, iron is a necessary nutrient. It allows the body to produce hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs in red blood cells throughout the body. Iron is also needed to make some hormones.

If you’re concerned your child may not be getting enough of the mineral, talk with your pediatrician first if you have concerns that your child isn’t getting enough iron. Don’t give your child supplements without talking to their doctor. Too much iron can be toxic.

How Much Iron Is Needed

The amount of iron each person needs varies based on their age, sex, and whether or not you eat a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians require twice as much iron, because they’re not regularly eating the iron found in animal foods which is easier to absorb.

The recommended daily amounts of iron for children are:

  • Birth to 6 months: 0.27 milligrams
  • 7 to 12 months: 11 milligrams
  • 1 to 3 years old: 7 milligrams
  • 4 to 8 years old: 10 milligrams
  • 9 to 13 years old: 8 milligrams

Teen boys, ages 14 to 18, should get 11 milligrams of iron a day, while teen girls of the same age should get 15 milligrams a day. If a girl’s monthly period is heavy, she may need more.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency in Children

When infants and toddlers don’t get enough iron, they can have delayed psychological development. They may withdraw socially and have shorter attention spans. Other symptoms may include fatigue, cold hands and feet, pale skin, slow growth, poor appetite, and behavioral problems.

Breastfed Infants May Need a Supplement

Breast milk has very little iron. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends infants who only consume breast milk get an iron supplement of 1 milligram for every kilogram of body weight starting at 4 months old. If your infant gets iron-fortified formula, a supplement may not be necessary. Talk with your doctor to see if your baby needs more iron.

Foods Rich in Iron

Once your child is able to eat solid foods, they should be able to get enough iron through their diet. Foods rich in iron include:

  • Red meats  
  • Turkey 
  • Chicken 
  • Pork
  • Fish
  • Dark leafy greens 
  • Beans 
  • Prunes 
  • Fortified cereals like oatmeal. Baby cereals are often fortified with iron.

Follow these tips to prevent iron deficiencies, which can result in anemia, or a low number of red blood cells.

Watch the milk intake. Studies show that drinking too much cow’s milk or goat’s milk can actually curb the body’s ability to absorb iron. Between the ages of 1 and 5 years old, children should drink no more than 24 ounces of milk a day.

Add foods rich in vitamin C. Ascorbic acid, found in foods rich in vitamin C, can help your child’s body absorb and use iron better. Add citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, and dark green vegetables into your kid’s diet. 

Know if your child is at risk. Certain children are more likely to develop an iron deficiency. Infants are born with iron stores, but premature babies have less time to store iron in the womb, so they’re more at risk. Children who are picky eaters or eat a mostly vegetarian diet may not get enough iron. Some diseases, such as Crohn’s disease, can cause low iron levels in children. Teenage girls with heavy menstrual flows also may need more iron.

Talk with your doctor. If you’re concerned about your child’s iron levels, talk with your doctor. They’ll take a sample of your child’s blood to test the amount of iron in the red blood cells. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies be screened for iron deficiency at 12 months old.

If your child needs more iron, your doctor may prescribe an iron supplement. Make sure to use it exactly as your doctor prescribes. It can take up to three months for the treatment to work.