The Importance of Iron during Pregnancy and Lactation for Baby and Mum

Registered Dietician/ nutritionist Tammy Kacev explains the importance of Iron during pregnancy and lactation for baby and mum:

We are well aware of the importance of a good diet pre pregnancy and during pregnancy, but once we have our precious babies we tend to neglect ourselves. Just as it is important to eat a balanced and healthy diet that is rich in a variety of nutrients and vitamins including protein, iron and calcium while we are pregnant, it is just as important to do the same while we are breastfeeding. In this article I will be discussing the importance of iron during pregnancy and lactation for both baby and mum.

Importance of Iron during Pregnancy

When we first find out we are pregnant part of the routine health check-up we receive that is done early on by our doctors (and then again in the third trimester) is to check our iron levels. Our body uses iron to make red blood cells (haemoglobin) and when we are pregnant our bodies need, and make more red blood cells, hence the need for a greater iron dietary recommendation when we are pregnant.

Low iron levels during pregnancy can make us feel unwell. Low iron may also pose risk to the unborn, and increase the risk of a low birth weight or a premature birth. Iron also plays an important role once our baby has been born. Getting enough iron supports a baby’s brain and neurological development during pregnancy and also during infancy and the first few years of their lives.

A newborn’s major source of iron comes from the body stores they have acquired while in the womb. If a pregnant woman consumes enough iron while pregnant, (specifically during the third trimester of pregnancy) the baby is likely to receive and be able to store enough iron to last for the first four or so months of their lives. But if a pregnant woman has iron anaemia, it could affect their babies iron store later on and they may require some extra iron in the way of supplements, in additional to the breastmilk and solids they consume.

Importance of Iron during Lactation

Insufficient milk is one of the main reasons for early discontinuation of breastfeeding. A mother’s iron levels post pregnancy and during lactation may affect her milk supply or affect her baby's iron supply. A study published in NIH (National Library of Medicine) found that mothers with low iron or anaemic iron levels “reported a higher level of symptomatology associated with insufficient milk.” (1) As a result, the study suggested that anaemia is associated with insufficient milk development, which further led to these mum’s breastfeeding for shorter periods of time and weaned their babies earlier.

Iron deficiency can greatly affect a breastfeeding mother’s wellbeing. Just as low iron levels can make us feel extremely tired and fatigued, grumpy and irritable with poor concentration during pregnancy, low iron during lactation exaggerate these symptoms, as with a newborn comes heightened emotions and lack of sleep.

Risk Factors

If a breastfeeding mum loses a lot of blood during the birth process, gets her period back within the first 6 months of having her baby or had low iron levels during pre-pregnancy or during pregnancy, they have an increased risk of having low iron levels or anaemia post birth while breastfeeding. Pre term babies or babies with low birth weights are less likely to have enough iron stores and may also have an increased risk of experiencing low iron, although most healthy and full term babies will get enough iron from their mothers in utero, which is usually adequate and enough for the first four to six months of life. 

Conclusion

To conclude, a healthy and balanced diet with adequate iron is highly important post-partum, especially when breastfeeding. My top suggestions for food sources that are high in iron include:

• Red meat

• Legumes

• Fortified cereals &

• Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach.

Iron supplements may be needed for mum while she is breastfeeding. They can be safe to take while breastfeeding, for both mum and baby but it is recommended that you speak to your health care professional before you take any iron supplements when you are breastfeeding or before you give any to your baby or if you have any concerns about your iron levels or your babies.

1. Henly SJ, Anderson CM, Avery MD, Hills-Bonczyk SG, Potter S, Duckett LJ. Anemia and insufficient milk in first-time mothers. Birth. 1995 Jun;22(2):86-92. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-536x.1995.tb00565.x. PMID: 7779228.