Why iron is important to consider before you have a baby

Thinking about starting to try to conceive?  Now is the time to optimize your nutrition!  Although there are lots of important nutrients for making a baby, iron is a key one to focus on. 

Iron helps to transport oxygen throughout our tissues and assists in forming new red blood cells, so it becomes even more important during pregnancy and is vital for the health of both you and your bub.  After becoming pregnant, your daily iron requirements increase from 18mg/day to 27mg/day.  To put that into perspective, it’s more than three times what your partner needs.  This is because both you and your baby are growing, which means that the volume of blood in your body increases to supply oxygen to your developing baby. You’re also growing a whole new organ, the placenta! Meaning, you need even more red blood cells to keep up with this growth. 

Iron is also important during pregnancy to reduce the risk of conditions such as iron deficiency or anaemia. Both conditions can cause symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, weakened immunity and headaches. They can also lead to pregnancy and birth complications such as preterm delivery, low birth weight and/or perinatal depression. 

During pregnancy, your baby relies on your iron intake to increase their own iron stores, making it important to ensure you are consuming enough iron to prevent your baby from developing iron deficiency or anaemia.  Iron is also extremely important for baby’s brain development and adequate intake can reduce the risk of poor cognitive, language and motor skill development. Unfortunately, research suggests that supplementing with iron later in life doesn’t usually undo damage caused by low iron intakes while a baby is in the womb. 

So, how can you optimise your iron levels during pregnancy?  Well, if you go into pregnancy with low iron stores, it can be challenging to get your iron levels up to the recommended range during pregnancy….which is why it is so much better to boost your iron intake prior to conceiving if possible.  Nausea and constipation are common during pregnancy and high doses of iron can exacerbate these conditions.  

Eating To Increase Your Iron Levels Before Pregnancy

Iron can be found in two forms, heme and non-heme. Heme iron is typically found in animal products, such as meat, poultry and seafood. While non-heme iron is found in wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and leafy greens. Our body absorbs heme iron much better than non-heme. This means that if non-heme is your only iron source, you will need to consume a higher quantity of these foods to ensure your absorbing enough iron. Some ways you can increase your absorption of non-heme iron during meals is by having vitamin c or heme iron rich foods within the same meal, or by avoiding mixing dairy, tea and coffee with meals rich in non-heme iron (as these foods decrease absorption). Some pregnancy friendly sources of iron include beef, kangaroo, lamb, pork, wholegrains, iron-fortified bread/cereals (check the nutritional panel on these foods to see if extra iron has been added), kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and soy products such as tofu. 

In some cases, oral iron supplementation may be needed to increase your iron if dietary changes are not working. However, the best approach is definitely to build up your iron stores before pregnancy.

Author: Melanie McGrice  – Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Melanie McGrice is a highly respected Australian dietitian, passionate about working with women to improve nutrition and dietary issues. Melanie is also the director of Nutrition Plus,  a dietetic company which specialises in fertility, pregnancy and women’s health.