Are Supplements for Babies Necessary?

Supplements are no compensation for healthy food paired with healthy food habits.

Food should always come first; don’t rely on supplements. If you’re worried your babe is too picky to be meeting his needs, be sure to read How to Avoid Raising a Picky Eater, because healthy habits started late are better than healthy habits never started at all.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” ― Hippocrates. 

Enjoy reading and let me know what you think, “Are supplements for babies necessary?”

Do I Need to Supplement my Breastfed Baby with Iron Drops after 4-6 Months?

Iron for breastfed babies

Unfortunately somewhere along the line, breast milk has gotten a bad name for itself when talking about that dreaded 6 month mark and iron stores. Logically thinking, how does breast milk go from nature’s perfect food to all of a sudden NOT ENOUGH!? This doesn’t really add up in my mind, so how about some research to help this quandary.

Taken directly from the Linkages Project, “There is evidence to suggest that human milk contains soluble transporters for iron (Fe++) and zinc (Zn++) that can more efficiently facilitate the absorption of these ions, which milk may account for the normal levels of these trace elements in the circulation of breast-fed infants, even though human milk itself contains low levels of these trace metals.” 

No Doubt Breastmilk is Low in Iron, But is That a Bad Thing?

In 2014, the American Journal of Human Biology published an article that explains from an evolutionary standpoint, why the natural decline of iron in a baby ready to start solids (around 6 months) is actually a good thing. They describe it as an adaptive strategy for decreasing the frequency and severity of an infection during development. (12) What does that mean? 

In order for any microorganism to take hold in the body, it needs iron. To limit infection, the body needs to limit iron availability to invading pathogens. (13) “Klebba’s team found that E. coli must acquire iron from the host to establish a foothold and colonize the gut.” (10) Especially important for infants ready to begin solids, a reduction in iron seems to be an intentional, natural protective mechanism to limit infection when introducing solid food. 

A reduction in iron seems to be an intentional, natural protective mechanism to limit infection when introducing solid food.

 Yes, supplementing with iron will increase serum ferritin levels but is this beneficial? One randomized control trial revealed the biological significance of having higher serum ferritin levels remains to be determined. Infants with higher vs. lower iron status didn’t effect babies’ weight gain or growth. (11) 

Bottom line: lower iron levels may not be so bad when baby is ready to begin solids. Looking at the research, it seems to actually be a natural, beneficial anomaly. 

 

Breastfed babies typically don't need iron drops

Photo by the pink peppercorn via Flickr Image altered

 

More Reasons Not to Supplement with Iron:

Iron Drops Stain Teeth

This is just a normal side effect of iron drops.

Iron Drops Cause Upset Tummies

Stomach pain, cramping and constipation are very likely side effects of iron supplementation. (7) 

Your Baby May Have Hemochromatosis

Hemochromatosis is an inherited disorder where iron absorption is highly enhanced. Sounds great, but the excess iron their body doesn’t need can’t be excreted and is deposited in major organs, to eventually disease them. If someone with this disorder receives supplemental iron, it may quickly become fatal. This genetic disorder affects over 1 million Americans, don’t chance that your baby isn’t one of them. (8)

Iron Overdose Kills

Iron overdose is a leading cause of poisoning-related injury and death in young children. (5) Having vitamins, adult or pediatric, in the house is a potential danger. “Children may show signs of toxicity with ingestions of 10-20 mg/kg of elemental iron. Serious toxicity is likely with ingestions of more than 60 mg/kg. Iron exerts both local and systemic effects and is corrosive to the gastrointestinal mucosa and can affect the heart, lungs, and liver.” (4) Treat supplements as you do poison: lock them up. 

So why risk the chance of accidental overdose either by mis-dosage or having curious little ones discover it while scavenging every cupboard and drawer they can find.

The risks of iron supplements certainly outweigh the benefits. 

Symptoms of Iron Poisoning

Symptoms of iron poisoning include, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, weak pulse, dizziness, shock and confusion. There is also a risk of iron overload from a smaller amount not large enough to result in death which causes liver infections and tissue damage. (2) Dr. Hoffman, author of Intelligent Medicine says, “Ironically, some of the signs of iron overload are analogous to those of iron deficiency: fatigue, headache, irritability and lowered work performance. Therefore, taking supplements before measuring iron status is clearly unwise.” (3) 

What can we gather from this? That giving your baby an iron supplement is not something to take lightly. Please don’t just decide to give on a whim, especially without a doctor’s knowing. An excellent pediatrician will advise you to focus on a healthy, high-iron diet and tell you not to replace that with supplements.

 

How to Ensure Adequate Iron Intake:

Provide High Iron Foods

Obviously, the first recommendation is to provide high iron foods. This article on toddler’s nutrition needs has a table of high iron foods, plus it explains how much nutrition a 1-3 year old needs. (Your little one will be 1 before you know it!) By the time your baby is eating (hopefully you have looked into baby-led weaning) she will be supplementing her breastmilk diet with high iron foods provided by you. Aim to breastfeed through 1 year to continue to help with iron absorption.

Cook With Iron Cookware

Just by cooking your meals in iron cookware, you can increase the iron content in your food. One study showed that by cooking in an iron pot with citric acid (like lemon juice), “Significantly increased iron amount, from 1.7 mg to 26.8 mg Fe per 100 g”. That’s an increase of 1,500%! (6) Invest in a cast-iron skillet, not a bottle of iron drops to ensure your baby is getting enough iron in his diet.

Plan to Clamp your Baby’s Umbilical Cord Later (Next Baby)

Mom’s iron rich blood passes to baby via the placenta affecting baby’s iron stores. Cutting the cord quickly after delivery robs baby of precious iron-rich blood that can be stored for later. The WHO now recommends to delay cord clamping 1-3 minutes after birth.  Delaying cord clamping is associated with a reduction in  iron-deficiency three to six months after birth. (9)

 

Think Twice: Supplements for Babies

Over-the-Counter Supplements are Not Regulated 

Do Babies Need Supplements

Photo by petr kratochvil Image altered

There is no agency that tests supplements for purity or potency. The FDA states, “Manufacturers are expected to guarantee the identity, purity, strength, and composition of their dietary supplements” but “You should be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not analyze the content of dietary supplements.” (1) In other words, the FDA tells the supplement companies, this is what I expect, but there will be no one watching…ever…so you better be good. 

Why should you care? You may be paying a high price for those herbs, but it may be mostly filler. Or that omega-3 pill could have been manufactured from fish that lived in a highly toxic environment. Maybe that ferrous sulfate is in a different form than advertised. Bottom line is you just never know what is really in that bottle.

That’s why purchasing from an extraordinarily reputable brand is vital. 

A reputable company will pay to have their products tested by a third party to prove whats in the bottle is what they say it is. Purchasing from a reputable brand who does this or getting a prescription formulated by a pharmacy is the safest bet to ensure your supplements are safe. 

Synthetic is Never Better

Science has a long way to go, especially when it comes to food and functions that take place on the inside of the human body. The fact there are so many different and unidentified components in foods, coupled with the many body processes that take place to digest and absorb a meal vs. a single nutrient, it is impossible to capture all the idiosyncratic compounds created and pathways triggered in vivo. Modern science may think they know all there is to know, but in reality, a synthesized ferrous sulfate may try and act like it’s idol but there’s no substitute for the real thing when eaten with all of it’s natural nutrients working together.

Supplements Give False Security

Wondering if your baby will need a multivitamin/mineral? Set your sites on focusing on healthy eating and you won’t need to rely on a manufactured multivitamin/mineral or single nutrient supplement. It’s so easy to give in to a child who seems like they will only eat chicken nuggets, don’t make it even easier to give in by justifying a poor diet with a supplement. A meal comprised of spinach, oranges, lentils and chicken is so much more than folate, Vitamin C, and B6. It is a cancer-preventing, anti-aging, body nourishing, free-radical fighting plate full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, plus it’s delicious.

With this being said, there may be situations where supplements may be needed or wanted for peace of mind. If you choose to supplement, be sure it’s with a reputable brand that pays for third party testing to ensure purity. 

(2) Rolfes, S., & Whitney, E. (2006). Understanding normal and clinical nutrition (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

THE INFORMATION PROVIDED DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. All content information is intended to be for general informational purposes only. Please see your doctor with regard to information attained from the above article if you are concerned with the health of your child. The content above is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. NEVER NEGLECT YOUR DOCTOR’S PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU HAVE READ. 

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  1. Julie February 16, 2015

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