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Can too much iron supplement harm babies?

Experts try their best to protect us from iron-deficiency anemia, a condition that can result in poor development in babies and pregnancy complications in women. Iron is an element that the body needs to synthesize haemoglobin, the “oxygen carrier” in red blood cells.

While breast milk can provide a baby its iron requirements during the first 6 months, other types of milk – unless fortified – can’t. A typical US infant formula is fortified with 12 mg/mL of iron. The amount in other countries, such as those in Europe is usually lower.

A policy statement by a Committee on Nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1999 strongly endorses this level of formula fortification because of the lower than unexpected rates in breastfeeding.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan suggests that too much iron can actually be harmful for babies. The researchers conducted a study in Chile which compared IQ scores of 494 non-anemic children based on the amount of iron in their milk formula as babies. Results of follow-up after 10 years show that some of the children who received highly-iron-fortified formula had lower IQ scores, as well as lower scores in visual-motor integration and spatial memory. The measurements will be repeated again in six years’ time.

In the meantime, experts see no reason to change the current recommendations for iron fortification of baby formulas based on these results. Since its initiation in the 1970s in the US, the incidence of iron-deficiency anemia in babies dropped significantly. Further studies are needed to confirm these results.

The moral of this study is that you won’t have to worry whether your baby is getting too little or too much iron if you fully breastfeed during the 6 months.

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