Iron and Breastfeeding: A Guide

When you're breastfeeding, your body's iron demands don't pause—your reserves need to support not only your health but also the growth and development of your baby.

While your little one draws a relatively small amount of iron from breast milk, you, as a new mother, may still be replenishing your own stores after pregnancy and the birthing process. It's vital, then, to keep an eye on your iron intake to fend off deficiency and its potential impact on your energy levels and overall health.

Through this guide, we'll walk you through the essentials of maintaining a healthy iron balance. We'll explore topics like the best iron-rich foods to eat, how to choose the right supplements if needed, and how iron works in your body—and in your baby's body, too. We're here to support you with reliable, science-backed advice so you can navigate this aspect of breastfeeding with confidence and good health.

Iron and Breastfeeding: A Guide

Daily Iron Requirements for Breastfeeding Mothers

Generally, the recommended daily intake for breastfeeding mothers is about 14-15 milligrams. However, this may be higher in the initial postpartum period to compensate for blood loss during delivery.

Here are specific considerations:

  • Postpartum Period: In the first several weeks postpartum, some mothers may need additional iron to recover from blood loss associated with childbirth. 

  • Exclusively Breastfeeding: If a mother is exclusively breastfeeding and not supplementing with formula, her iron needs might be slightly lower because menstruation has often not resumed, which conserves iron.

  • Menstruating Mothers: Those who have resumed menstruation while breastfeeding may require more iron to compensate for the monthly blood loss.

  • Vegetarian and Vegan Mothers: For mothers following a plant-based diet, the requirement might be as much as 1.8 times higher due to the lower bioavailability of non-heme iron found in plant sources.

  • Previous Iron Deficiency: Mothers with a history of iron deficiency may be advised by a qualified professional to consume more than the standard recommendation to rebuild their iron stores.

Selecting Iron Supplements for Breastfeeding

For breastfeeding mothers, boosting iron levels is often essential, and supplements are a common go-to when food sources aren't enough. The traditional choices, iron tablets, and pills, are widely used. However, they come with a list of possible side effects which are less than ideal when you're caring for a new baby. These supplements can also cause dark stools and, if you're using a liquid iron supplement and not following the instructions properly, it could temporarily darken your teeth.

In more severe cases of deficiency, iron infusions might be suggested. They may be effective, but they require a visit to a healthcare facility and carry their own risks, including allergic reactions.

Iron Absorption from Breastmilk vs. Formula Feeding 

The type of iron found in breast milk is known as 'heme' iron, which is highly bioavailable, meaning it's readily absorbed and used by the baby’s body. This efficiency of absorption helps prevent any gastrointestinal distress often associated with iron intake.

On the other hand, formula milk is usually fortified with 'non-heme' iron. Non-heme iron is less readily absorbed than heme iron, which can lead to different issues. The unabsorbed iron can remain in the baby's gut and may potentially cause side effects such as constipation or changes in stool color. Additionally, this unabsorbed iron can act as a food source for pathogenic bacteria in the intestine, potentially leading to gastrointestinal disturbances.

Moreover, the process of adding iron to formula can sometimes produce iron salts that may lead to oxidative stress in infants. Oxidative stress is a condition that can occur when there's an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. In infants, this might affect cell growth and development.

Iron-Rich Foods for Breastfeeding Mothers

For breastfeeding mothers, consuming iron-rich foods is key to maintaining healthy iron levels for both mother and child. There are two primary types of iron found in foods: heme iron, which is found in animal products, and non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based foods.

Heme iron sources include:

  • Red meats (beef, lamb)
  • Poultry (chicken, turkey)
  • Fish (especially oily fish like salmon)

These are considered more effective for increasing iron levels as heme iron is better absorbed by the body.

Non-heme iron sources are:

  • Legumes (lentils, chickpeas)
  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale)
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole grains and fortified cereals

To enhance the absorption of non-heme iron, it's beneficial to consume vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, strawberries, and bell peppers alongside these iron sources.

Including a variety of these foods in your diet can help maintain iron levels. However, it's also important to note that certain substances like caffeine and some dairy products can inhibit iron absorption, so their intake should be monitored to avoid potential impact on iron status.

Low Iron Levels in Breastfeeding Mothers

Not getting enough bioavailable iron is relatively common among breastfeeding mothers, primarily because of increased nutritional demands to support milk production and recovery post-birth. When a mother is deficient in iron, it can lead to severely low iron. This could lead to issues which may impair a mother's ability to care for her infant and attend to her own needs.

The implications extend beyond immediate physical symptoms. It can impact a mother's mood and energy levels, potentially affecting her overall well-being and the quality of interaction with her baby. Moreover, while breast milk typically maintains adequate iron levels for the infant regardless of the mother's iron status, severe maternal iron deficiency could impact the milk supply.

Mothers should take the following steps to ensure they maintain a healthy level of iron:

  • Eat Well: Prioritize a balanced diet rich in heme iron sources (meats and fish) and non-heme iron sources (leafy greens, legumes, and fortified cereals), coupled with vitamin C to enhance absorption.

  • Choose the Right Supplement: If dietary adjustments do not suffice,  and you need a means of supplementing, consult with your doctor or health professional to determine the right iron for you that will give you the greatest potential for absorption with the least side effects.

  • Monitor Health Signs: Be vigilant about symptoms and consult a healthcare provider if they persist.

  • Regular Blood Tests: Having blood tests as recommended by a healthcare provider will track iron levels and ensure they are improving.

Do Low Iron Levels Affect Milk Supply?

There is no clear scientific consensus that maternal iron deficiency reduces breast milk supply. However, if severe enough, lack of iron in mothers may indirectly affect the quantity and quality of breast milk due to the mother's overall reduced health status.

Signs of Low Iron in Breastfed Babies

Identifying low iron in breastfed infants is crucial since iron is essential for their growth and development, particularly for the brain. The signs of iron deficiency in infants can be subtle, but typically include:

  • Slower Weight Gain: Infants with iron deficiency may not gain weight at the expected rate.
  • Fatigue and Weakness: An infant may seem unusually tired or lethargic.
  • Pale Skin: The skin may appear more pale than normal.
  • Decreased Appetite: Iron deficiency can lead to a reduced interest in feeding.
  • Irritability: Babies may be fussier and more difficult to soothe.

If these symptoms are observed, the infant's iron status should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. This often involves a simple blood test to measure levels of hemoglobin and serum ferritin.

Iron Supplement Side Effects in Babies

When babies receive iron supplements, there may be side effects, which are important to monitor. These can include:

  • Digestive Discomfort: Iron supplements can cause stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting in some infants.
  • Constipation: A common side effect of iron supplementation is constipation, which can lead to discomfort and irritability.
  • Change in Stool Color: Supplements often darken the color of stool, which is typically harmless but can be concerning for parents.

It is essential to administer iron supplements to babies under medical supervision and according to the recommended dosage to minimize potential side effects. If side effects occur, they should be discussed with a pediatrician to determine the best course of action, which might include:

  • Adjusting the Dose: The doctor may alter the dosage to find a balance that supports the baby's iron levels without causing significant discomfort.
  • Changing the Formulation: Switching to a different type of iron supplement, such as one designed for sensitive stomachs or a lower-dose option, may be beneficial.
  • Dietary Adjustments: If the baby is eating solid foods, incorporating foods high in fiber can help alleviate constipation.
  • Hydration: Ensuring the baby is well-hydrated can also help reduce digestive side effects.

Monitoring Your Baby for Too Much Iron

While iron is vital for a baby's growth and development, too much can be harmful. It is rare for breastfed babies to receive an excess of iron from breast milk alone; however, if supplements are introduced, there is a risk of iron overload. The symptoms of iron overdose can include:

  • Gastrointestinal Distress: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain are common initial signs.
  • Lethargy: An unusual level of tiredness or a lack of energy can be indicative of too much iron.
  • Jaundice: A yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes may occur in severe cases.
  • Respiratory Problems: In serious cases, there can be difficulty breathing.

Safely Increasing Iron Intake While Breastfeeding

For breastfeeding mothers, safely increasing iron intake is paramount to avoid deficiency and its related complications. Here are key considerations and steps to enhance iron levels responsibly:

  • Dietary Sources: Incorporate a variety of iron-rich foods into your diet. Focus on lean meats, seafood, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables. Pairing these with vitamin C-rich foods can enhance iron absorption.

  • Iron Supplements: If dietary changes are insufficient, a healthcare provider may recommend an iron supplement. Nano Iron is an alternative that is reputed to be absorbed more effectively with fewer gastrointestinal side effects.

  • Cooking Practices: Using cast iron cookware can increase the amount of iron in food, particularly when cooking acidic foods like tomato sauce.

  • Avoid Inhibitors: Some foods and beverages can inhibit iron absorption, such as coffee, tea, and foods high in calcium. It's advisable to consume these separately from iron-rich meals.

  • Timing of Supplements: If taking iron supplements, doing so between meals may enhance absorption, but for those with sensitive stomachs, taking them with food may reduce discomfort.

  • Regular Blood Tests: Monitoring iron levels through blood tests can help ensure that iron intake is appropriate and effective, reducing the risk of over-supplementation.

FAQs about Iron and Breastfeeding

Is it OK to take iron while breastfeeding?

Yes, it is perfectly acceptable for breastfeeding mothers to take iron supplements if they have been diagnosed with iron deficiency. It's essential to consult with a healthcare provider for the correct dosage and formulation.

How much iron does a lactating mother need daily?

A lactating mother typically needs about 14-15 milligrams of iron daily. This requirement may vary depending on individual health factors and dietary intake.

Does iron pass through breast milk to baby?

Yes, iron does pass through breast milk, but in a very regulated and appropriate amount for the infant's needs. Breast milk contains a highly absorbable form of iron that is sufficient for exclusively breastfed infants for the first 4-6 months.

When should I start taking iron while breastfeeding?

Iron supplementation may be recommended if blood tests indicate that the mother's iron levels are low or if she shows symptoms of iron deficiency anemia. Healthcare providers will give specific guidance on when to begin supplementation.

What is the best iron supplement for breastfeeding mothers?

The best iron supplement is one that effectively raises iron levels without causing adverse side effects. 

Can taking iron while breastfeeding cause my baby to be gassy?

There is no direct evidence to suggest that iron supplements taken by the mother cause gas in breastfed babies. If a baby is gassy, it's more likely due to their developing digestive system or reactions to other components in the mother's diet.

Can breastfeeding cause iron deficiency in the mother?

Breastfeeding itself does not cause iron deficiency in mothers. However, the increased demand for iron during lactation, combined with any blood loss during delivery, may contribute to lower iron levels if not addressed with an adequate and well balanced diet.

Why is breast milk low in iron?

Breast milk contains a lower concentration of iron compared to formula, but the iron in breast milk is highly bioavailable. This means that although the quantity is lower, the quality is high, and infants can absorb it more efficiently.

How to increase iron in breastmilk?

The iron content in breast milk is not significantly influenced by the mother's dietary intake or iron stores. Instead, focus on maintaining the mother's iron levels to support overall health and well-being.


Why is iron important in lactating mothers?

Iron is crucial for lactating mothers to help maintain their energy levels, and support their immune system, which in turn aids in the normal development of the baby.

What happens if there is too much iron while breastfeeding?

Too much iron in breastfeeding mothers is unlikely to affect the baby, as iron regulation in breast milk is tightly controlled. However, excess iron intake by the mother can lead to gastrointestinal issues or iron overload for the mother.