So, at Valerie's nine-month check-up, they pricked her toe and tested her iron levels. It was 9.8, which meant nothing to me, but apparently it's slightly on the low side. The doctor said she wanted it to be at least 11, and suggested that we give Valerie supplements. Knowing that constipation is a common side effect of iron supplements, and not wanting to further exacerbate a problem that Valerie was already dealing with, I asked the doctor if we could just make sure she gets more iron in her diet. She smiled knowingly, and warned me how difficult it is to correct an iron deficiency with diet, but said that she would let me try, since 9.8 is low, but not dangerously low. We made a follow-up appointment for six weeks later, and went home and read everything there is on the Internet about iron-rich diets.
(If you ever happen to be in this situation, I'll save you a bit of googling. Start here, for the basics. Then go here for a detailed drill-down of the nutritional content of every edible thing in the universe.)
The first thing that hit me when I was doing my reading was how many iron-rich foods are associated with the opposite of constipation. Dark leafy greens, beans and legumes, bran, PRUNE JUICE. Prune juice is high in iron? Did you hear that, pregnant women around the world whose iron supplements are causing you gastrointestinal distress? Dietary iron solves both problems at once! Constipation can also be a symptom of an iron deficiency, so it makes sense from a homeopathic perspective that iron supplements often cause constipation. Like cures like, and all that. If you need the iron, supplements may fix the problem, but if you don't need them, then they can cause the problem. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, read this.)
All the more resolved not to give my baby iron supplements, we set to work on making sure her diet was as iron-dense as possible. We gave her beef and turkey meat (dark meat is best). We gave her all kinds of boiled greens (she loved the kale!). We gave her lentils and beans. We continued to give her sweet potatoes and avocado and broccoli, which were already some of her favorite foods. Since we are doing baby-led weaning with her (a finger foods approach to introducing solid foods), we gave her these things straight up, cooked until tender when necessary, but not blended into rice cereal or anything, and not spooned into her mouth. It was up to her to choose from all of the lovely, ironful options and eat herself healthy. If you're a control freak, then I don't recommend this method. But if you can trust nature to do its thing, then it's great. The theory behind it is that babies will give their bodies what they need, so if they need iron, they will choose to eat foods with iron. And Valerie did. She didn't like everything we offered her, and one day she would eat a whole leaf of kale only to ignore it completely the next day and go for the sweet potato instead, but overall, she seemed to be doing a pretty good job at filling her belly with the right kinds of things.
Today was her six-week hemoglobin check, which was probably in the appointment book as "prove to this crazy mom that she can't possibly feed her baby enough red meat to raise her iron levels and write her a prescription for iron supplements." And honestly, I wasn't even convinced that iron-loading Valerie's diet would have done the trick, and I was just hoping that her iron levels would have at least stayed the same, and not have gone down. I knew we had done our best, and I was happy to have discovered the many health benefits of prune juice if nothing else. The nurse took Valerie's blood, then went into the other room to check it. We could hear her exclamation of joy through the walls, and the doctor came in and told us that it had gone up to 12.2! Hooray for overachieving! I have to tell you, the best words in the world to hear your doctor say are, "Keep on doing what you're doing."
A few tips and tricks for parents who might want to iron-load their babies' diets:
-Make sure you give your baby a mix of heme and non-heme iron, to increase absorption. Vitamin C also improves iron absorption, which you can get from all kinds of melon. Just cut finger-shaped strips of ripe melon for the baby to gnaw on.
-Edamame (soy beans) are soft enough to chew without teeth. I was able to get them from Trader Joe's pre-cooked and pre-peeled, and I would just give them to Valerie cold. (Pictured in the center of Valerie's tray in the above picture.)
-Roll anything slippery (like avocado or fruit) in wheat germ. It makes it easier to grip, and adds iron.
-Prune jello jigglers! It sounds silly, but this was one of Valerie's favorite iron-rich foods. Just sprinkle a packet of plain, unflavored gelatin on top of 1/2 cup of cold prune juice. Let it sit for one minute, then add 1/2 cup of boiling water and stir for a few minutes until completely dissolved. Add one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses (also high in iron!), then pour into a small rectangular dish (I used a Chinese take-out container) and refrigerate overnight. Cut into little rectangular cubes for the baby to enjoy! (Pictured on the right-hand side of the above picture.)
-Prune pancakes! Pancakes are a great finger food for babies, because they are soft and gummable, but firm enough to pick up. I prefer to make pancakes from scratch, but when I am feeling lazy, I use an "add water" mix. But I add prune juice instead of water! Valerie loved her prunecakes. Sometimes, I would mix some wheat germ or cooked greens into the batter, too, for added iron. (Pictured on the left-hand side of the above picture.)
-Big beans, like kidney beans, worked great on their own, but Valerie had a little more trouble picking up little things like lentils (which I really wanted to use, because they had the highest iron content). So, I made a yummy baked lentil dish (from the More With Less cookbook), then I mixed the lentils with some sushi rice to make little patties that she could pick up easily. I wish I had thought of rolling them in wheat germ, too, that would have been perfect.
-I never got around to trying this last one, but I will once my avocados ripen! Seaweed is very high in iron, and a friend of mine suggested making baby-sized California rolls with just avocado in the middle. What a great idea!
-Do you have any other ideas for iron-rich finger foods? Share them in the comments!