Iron–Rich Foods For Breastfeeding Moms 

  • Anamika ShivhareM. Dental Surgery (Oral Pathology & Microbiology), Devi Ahilya University


Iron is an essential nutrient found in minimal concentrations in breast milk and an important blood-producing element in the body. It is still being questioned whether the iron in breast milk is sufficient to support the developmental demands of a baby during the first six months of life. In some regions, it was suggested that giving iron supplements to a baby should start at 4 months, while some do not support this. This decision also affects when solid foods should be introduced, as iron-fortified foods can help meet the baby's iron needs in the latter half of infancy. 

Research has shown that, iron is not naturally present in the mother's milk, and the little iron present in breast milk is in low amounts which means the amount of iron that you consume as a mom, might likely not increase the level of iron your baby gets.1

However, staying on a healthy diet during lactation is vital for your health and that of the baby. Iron-rich foods enable iron to perform its essential functions in the body. Because Iron aids in oxygen transfer during cellular respiration. It is also used by myoglobin to store oxygen in muscles. Beyond its enzymatic role and involvement in metabolic processes, Iron plays an important role the nervous system.1

Understanding iron needs during breastfeeding 

As a breastfeeding mom, you might become anaemic during lactation due to iron loss during delivery which drops your iron levels. Although breast milk contains minimum iron, the iron concentration is unaffected by ​the mother's iron levels​. This implies that the level of iron in breast milk is preserved even when there is a ​depletion of the​ ​mother's iron storage. 

Postpartum anaemia is more common in mothers who were anaemic throughout their pregnancy. Lactating mothers might also become iron-depleted if they do not consume enough nutrition and energy. Mothers' iron levels are already reduced from their pregnancy when they give birth.2 

Iron consumption for nursing mothers is only 9 mg per day. This is because iron loss due to menstruation is not expected during the first 6 months after giving birth, and the iron accumulated in the body during pregnancy may be utilised by the mother after childbirth. As a result, most healthy nursing mothers do not require additional iron supplements.3 

However, many women are encouraged to continue taking prenatal vitamin-mineral supplements while nursing. These supplements typically include around 30 mg of iron per day. According to a report, nursing mothers take roughly 30 mg of iron from supplements on top of the iron they get from their usual diet, which is too much considering the 16 mg per day that is gotten from regular diets. It also exceeds the highest level of iron recommended for pregnant and lactating mothers which is 45 mg per day. 

Low Iron level has been connected to depression, stress, and cognitive performance in low-income African women during the postpartum period. Another study found that anaemia induced by iron deficiency was responsible for roughly 20% of maternal fatalities in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Severe anaemia has also been reported in lactating moms, this places an emphasis on the importance of iron in the maternal diet.3 

Top animal-based iron-rich foods

A. Red meat and poultry 

The iron component of red meat is important for the proper functioning of your body, but experts have advised against its excess consumption. However, research shows that the removal of red meat from the human diet could have a negative impact on your health and result in low mineral density in the bone and increased bone fracture rates.4

Iron, as a trace element in foods, exists in a heme and non-heme form. The heme type of ​iron has a higher bioavailability with​ an absorption of 20-30% while the non-heme iron has an absorption of about 5-10%.2 The heme iron can only be obtained by eating red meat and poultry. It is a component of haemoproteins, notably myoglobin, which determines the typical red colour of meat. The iron component of red meat in mg/100g of meat is as follows 1.00–7.80 for beef, 0.30–3.00 for pork and 1.10–3.60 for lamb.4

The consumption of poultry meat contributes to the overall quality of your diet no matter your age group and condition. For instance, in the prenatal period, during pregnancy, and towards the end of lactation, the quality of your diet as a mother influences your health and that of the infant.

​The contribution of poultry products​, which are ​rich in all important​ nutrients, can lower the occurrence of various prevalent metabolic illnesses linked with deficits in ​vital dietary minerals, vitamins, and amino​ ​acids​. 

In poultry foods like chicken, turkey, goose and duck, iron also exists in heme form, the iron content in chicken, turkey, and duck is 1.25 mg, 1.3mg, and 2.7mg per 100 mg respectively.5 While that of the goose ranged from 2.5mg-2.87mg per 100g of goose. However, this depends on whether it has been cooked, or roasted.

B. Seafood

Seafood offers nutritional benefits that strengthen the immune system, improve the quality of sight, heart and most importantly good brain function. Apart from being good iron sources, they provide your body with a variety of minerals and vitamins.6

There are different species of seafoods with high levels of iron. However, sardine, mackerel, tuna and haddock are examples of fish that have good iron content. Tuna has about 1.6mg of iron per 100g. Aside from that, it is also a good source of vitamins A and D. Mackerel has 1.4mg of iron per 100 g, tuna has 1.6 mg. While other sea foods like octopus, oyster and anchovy have an iron content of about 9.5 mg, 9.2mg and 4.6mg per 100g respectively.7

Also, lobster, shrimps, clams and crabs are examples of shellfish that are rich in iron. While eating fish as a breast-feeding mom is good for your health and that of the baby, it has been recommended that you shouldn’t eat more than two portions of fish per week.8 Also, seafood, especially shellfish, is known to be high in mercury, which is not advisable to be eaten in large quantities while breastfeeding. It is suggested that you check with your healthcare provider on how they can affect you and your baby.

Top plant-based iron-rich foods

A. Legumes

Beans are nutrient-giving seeds that belong to the legume family. The variety of legumes, sometimes called "pulses", includes cannellini beans, Great Northern beans, ​black beans​, soybeans, fava beans, Kidney ​beans, black-eyed peas, and lentils​. They are high in fibre, vitamin B, iron, manganese, carbohydrates, zinc, protein, copper, and phosphorus. They are known to be effective for the management of body weight and blood pressure, they also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.9 The average content of iron in beans is 5.5mg per 100 mg, which makes them a good dietary requirement. 

B. Leafy greens vegetables

Leafy green vegetables have been reported to improve blood quality and quantity, due to the high iron content in them. The average iron content is between 5-10 mg per 100g. However, iron bioavailability in greens may be impacted by the concentration of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which enhances it, while oxalates and tannins inhibit its absorption.

Green vegetables are usually not expensive, and cooking in iron pots might be an effective way to boost iron consumption.10 Examples of leafy vegetables that have good iron content include spinach, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and cucumber. 

C. Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are nutrient-filled varieties that serve an important purpose in your diet. They are called “cardio-protective" due to the lower risk of heart disease that results from their consumption. Research has also shown they help in the prevention of cancer, hypertension and inflammation. Examples of iron-rich nuts include. Almond, hazelnuts, cashew, sesame seeds, peanuts, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds.11

D. Fortified foods

​​Iron-fortified foods such as cereal flours, rice, salt​, and ​milk are​ a mixed diet readily available to you. Components of this diet ​can have a​ significant influence, ​both positive​ ​and negative, on the absorption of iron-fortified foods ​as well as​ natural iron-containing food. This is why it is recommended that you read labels wisely to take notes of compounds that can hinder the absorption of the iron taken. 

Enhancing iron absorption 

Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, and peptides from fish, poultry, and meat, improve iron absorption. They can control ​the negative effects of phytic acid and​ ​polyphenols​ which are compounds that inhibit iron absorption in your diet. Examples of meals that contain these compounds include cereal grains like wheat, maize, and rice, and some legumes like soy, lentils and beans.

Some of your beverages also contain these compounds, they include tea, coffee, and cocoa.11 However, fruits and vegetables could neutralize these compounds, so it is advised that you balance your meal to ensure you are taking the right content of iron. 

Iron supplements during breastfeeding 

It has been established that your iron diet during lactation is for your well-being as a mother, and it has no effect on the level of iron transferred to your child through breast milk.1 In situations where you are experiencing anaemia after childbirth, your healthcare provider can prescribe iron supplements to improve your haematologic parameters. Taking iron supplements, vitamins and minerals would not have a negative impact on your baby. 

Other considerations for optimal iron levels

As a breastfeeding mother, postpartum life comes with its challenges, it is important to do regular blood checks to know your iron level. Eat healthy foods, consult your healthcare provider for any strange symptoms. Drink plenty of water, exercise regularly and avoid toxic medications or compounds that could impact your health and that of the baby.2 


Iron-rich foods play an important role in maintaining a healthy life and preventing anaemia in breastfeeding moms. As a Breastfeeding mother, you should monitor your iron levels through regular checks in the hospital, prioritizing a healthy diet, and consulting healthcare providers for any concerns. Staying hydrated, exercising, and avoiding toxic medications are crucial for optimal iron levels during the breastfeeding journey. 

Taking care of your health through iron-rich foods and overall well-being is essential for you as a mom and for your baby during this special phase of breastfeeding. 


  1. Friel J, Qasem W, Cai C. Iron and the Breastfed Infant. Antioxidants (Basel). 2018;7(4). 
  2. Jorgensen JM, Yang Z, Lönnerdal B, Chantry CJ, Dewey KG. Effect of iron supplementation during lactation on maternal iron status and oxidative stress: A randomized controlled trial. Matern Child Nutr. 2017;13(4). 
  3. Lakew Y, Biadgilign S, Haile D. Anaemia prevalence and associated factors among lactating mothers in Ethiopia: evidence from the 2005 and 2011 demographic and health surveys. BMJ Open. 2015;5(4):e006001. 
  4. Fairweather-Tait S. The role of meat in iron nutrition of vulnerable groups of the UK population. Frontiers in Animal Science. 2023;4:1142252. 
  5. Marangoni F, Corsello G, Cricelli C, Ferrara N, Ghiselli A, Lucchin L, et al. Role of poultry meat in a balanced diet aimed at maintaining health and wellbeing: an Italian consensus document. Food Nutr Res. 2015;59:27606. 
  6. Wheal MS, DeCourcy-Ireland E, Bogard JR, Thilsted SH, Stangoulis JC. Measurement of haem and total iron in fish, shrimp and prawn using ICP-MS: Implications for dietary iron intake calculations. Food Chem. 2016;201:222-9. 
  7. Liu C, Ralston NVC. Seafood and health: What you need to know? Adv Food Nutr Res. 2021;97:275-318. 
  8. Jeong G, Park SW, Lee YK, Ko SY, Shin SM. Maternal food restrictions during breastfeeding. Korean J Pediatr. 2017;60(3):70-6. 
  9. Beebe S, Gonzalez AV, Rengifo J. Research on trace minerals in the common bean. Food and Nutrition Bulletin. 2000;21(4):387-91. 
  10. Kumari M, Gupta S, Lakshmi AJ, Prakash J. Iron bioavailability in green leafy vegetables cooked in different utensils. Food Chemistry. 2004;86(2):217-22. 
  11. Ros E. Health benefits of nut consumption. Nutrients. 2010;2(7):652-82. 12. Hurrell RF. Iron Fortification Practices and Implications for Iron Addition to Salt. J Nutr. 2021;151(Suppl 1):3s-14s.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Oluwanifesimi Ayo Adewale

MSc Biomedical Science, University of Chester

Oluwanifesimi is a first- class graduate of human anatomy with a passion for teaching and medical research. Through her academic and professional career, she has worked on different research projects including an umbrella project with the NHS. Owing to her expertise in research and education, she has developed an aptitude for conveying scientific information accurately. Her goal is to prevent inaccurate dissemination of medical information by writing concise and clear articles for specific audiences

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