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Origins of Health - How Important Is Iron for the Developing Brain?

Jenalee Doom Ph.D.


Iron deficiency in infancy and early childhood is associated with long-term cognitive, social, and emotional problems

30/08/2022 - Psychology Today


  • Iron deficiency in infancy and early childhood is associated with long-term cognitive, social, and emotional problems.
  • Provide iron-rich foods to children once they start eating solids to support their rapidly developing brain.
  • Work with your pediatrician to screen for iron deficiency and intervene early if needed.

The brain develops rapidly in the first few years of life, and proper nutrition is needed to support optimal brain development. Iron is a micronutrient that is essential for the developing brain as it helps carry oxygen to brain cells. Because the brain is developing so rapidly, it needs a lot of iron, and many kids do not get the amount of iron needed to support their brain development.

Effects of Iron Deficiency in Infancy and Early Childhood

Iron deficiency is more common in babies and children who grow up in poverty for a number of reasons. Some reasons include:

  • Lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning

  • Greater ADHD symptoms

  • Greater depression and anxiety problems
  • More social problems

Unfortunately, these problems often persist into adolescence and adulthood, even after iron deficiency has been treated (Doom et al., 2014; Lozoff et al., 2013). That is why preventing iron deficiency is so important!

Babies and kids with iron deficiency may appear tired because they lack energy since their body isn’t able to transport oxygen effectively. This tiredness can lead to a loop where caregivers interact less with the iron-deficient kids because they need less attention, and then kids don’t get the social interaction from caregivers that they need to support their social and cognitive development (Doom et al., 2020). So there are both social and biological ways that iron deficiency can affect development. 

Iron Deficiency and Children Living in Poverty

Iron deficiency is more common in babies and children who grow up in poverty for a number of reasons. Some reasons include:

  1. Lack of access to iron-rich food to prevent iron deficiency
  2. Lack of access to medical care for treating iron deficiency
  3. Stress affects how we absorb nutrients from foods. Kids who live in poverty often experience more stress, and their bodies may not be able to absorb enough iron from their foods if they’re experiencing a lot of stress.
  4. Environmental toxin exposures, such as lead poisoning, are more common in children living in poverty. For example, lead can prevent the body from absorbing iron properly (Hegazy et al., 2010). As a result, children can have both toxin exposure and iron deficiency, both of which are harmful to the developing brain.

There is evidence that iron stored in the brain can become depleted before we can detect iron deficiency in blood samples. As a result, we may not be catching everyone with low iron who might be helped by iron supplements.

Tips for maintaining iron levels in infants and children

The following are some general tips for improving or maintaining iron levels in infants and children:

  1. If your child has low iron levels, supplement with iron according to your pediatrician’s instructions.
  2. Breastmilk has very little iron. Luckily, iron is passed from the gestational parent to the baby during pregnancy, and these iron stores can last around 4-6 months (around the time that babies start eating foods besides milk). If your baby is breastfeeding, they should be monitored for iron deficiency. Once breastfed babies start eating additional foods at 4-6 months, caregivers should choose iron-rich foods (e.g., leafy greens, meats, iron-fortified cereals) for their child.
  3. If your child is drinking iron-fortified formula, you generally should not need extra iron supplements (though there could be other medical reasons for iron deficiency, so your child should still be screened for iron deficiency by your pediatrician).
  4. Once your child transitions to whole milk, which has little iron, you should make sure they’re limiting their milk intake to 16-24 ounces per day so they are eating enough iron-rich foods.

The reason why we don’t supplement every kid with iron even though it is so important for brain development is that too much iron can be toxic and negatively affect the developing brain. Giving your child a high-dose iron supplement when they are already iron-sufficient and getting enough iron in their diet could be counterproductive.

You should have your child screened by their pediatrician early in development and work with them to make sure your child has appropriate iron levels. The earlier that you’re able to intervene, the more likely your child’s brain will be able to recover and develop optimally. Healthy iron levels are important for setting up babies’ brains for long-term success.