iron in pregnancy

Iron in pregnancy

To supplement or not to supplement? That is the big question that plagues many pregnant women.

The importance of iron during pregnancy

More than any other nutrient, we know about how important iron in pregnancy is, but before we start buying iron supplements and dosing our way through the next nine months, is there an alternative and do we even need supplements to begin with?

Why is iron an issue during pregnancy?

The main reason that we hear so much about iron in pregnancy is that lack of iron can have an effect on the baby, which is something no one wants. Iron’s job in the body is to carry oxygen to all the different organs and tissues. During pregnancy, this includes your baby and placenta. A reduction in the amount of oxygen delivered to the placenta and baby can lead to a number of problems.

Women who are low in iron are more likely to have a premature baby and also to have babies who are a low birth weight. A smaller baby may sound like a great idea when it comes to labour, but smaller babies have a slightly increased risk of diseases like obesity and heart disease in later life. In saying that, the chances are small so there is no need to panic, but it is no harm to do all that we can to keep our children as healthy as possible.

Women who are low in iron in pregnancy are also more open to infections during and after pregnancy and are more prone to post-natal depression.

Another problem with being low in iron in pregnancy is that the baby can’t develop their own iron stores, which means they are low in iron themselves from birth. Lack of iron leaves adults tired, grumpy and irritable – not something you want for your newborn. Iron is also essential for brain development in babies and toddlers so, again, making sure you have enough iron in pregnancy is very important.

How can I get enough iron?

The most important time to start is before you get pregnant. If you are planning a baby, have a good look at what you are eating at the moment.

You need to aim for 14mg of iron everyday and 15mg per day once you are pregnant and this means you need to eat iron-rich foods everyday.

Start by keeping a food diary for a week and see how often you are eating foods rich in iron. This is also useful to do while you are pregnant to check your intake.

One of the most important things to remember is that very few foods have a lot of iron in them. You need to think about iron-rich foods at every meal, not just at dinner, if you are going to get enough. Lots of foods will have small amounts of iron so you will pick up a little in other foods but do try to include some of the foods below at every meal. You may not feel like eating much in the first three months of pregnancy, but your baby will be able to get iron from your body so don’t panic if nausea means you can’t face beef stew at this time! You do need to catch up later in the pregnancy so once your appetite comes back, make sure iron-rich foods are on the menu.

iron in pregnancy

Why are so many women low in iron during pregnancy?

The main reason a women is low in iron in pregnancy is if she has been low in iron generally beforehand. Many women don’t eat enough iron – studies in Ireland show that more than 50% of Irish women are not eating enough iron. If you are low in iron when you start your pregnancy, it can be difficult to catch up. Some women may lose iron due to bowel diseases like Crohn’s or colitis or someone who is coeliac may also struggle with iron. Not eating enough iron is generally the main cause.

What about supplements?

There was a time when every woman who was pregnant was given an iron supplement but studies now show that too much iron may also be a problem so supplements are not recommended unless you need them. So what do you do? The best thing is to get your iron checked before you become pregnant or within the first three months. If you are low in iron, talk to your GP as you may need a supplement. Or you can take good care of what you eat – iron from food is more easily absorbed than iron from supplements. If you do need an iron supplement, those with added vitamin C are a little easier on your tummy.

Iron-rich foods

Iron that comes from meat, poultry and fish is very easily absorbed by the body. This type of iron is called haem iron. The type of iron found in vegetables like chickpeas or broccoli is called non-haem iron. It is more difficult for your body to absorb this type of iron but eating a food rich in vitamin C will boost iron absorption from these foods. Some good iron-rich ideas are below:

  • Fortified breakfast cereal with a glass of orange juice
  • Bean salad with fresh tomatoes
  • Baked beans with baked potato
  • Roast chicken leg with carrots and broccoli
  • Red lentils added to vegetable soup
  • Tinned sardines on toast
  • Lamb shank with peas and carrots
  • Beans on toast (try this for an iron-rich breakfast)

More like this:

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The best foods for new mums
Eating for two


Q. I’m would like to start an exercise programme that will benefit my emotional health as much as my physical health, but I don’t know which type of class would be best. Should I consider choosing from yoga, pilates, tai chi, or could you recommend a class, please?

A It’s great that you have decided to get into exercise. The benefits to you are going to be great. You’ll sleep better, have more energy, better skin, reduced stressed, not to mention all the amazing physical benefits of your clothes fitting better, and looking healthy, trim and toned! My advice to you would be to try them all. Even if some don’t offer pay-as-you-go sessions, if you get in touch directly with the instructor, they will almost always let you try it out first to see if it’s for you. All of the above things that you mentioned are great for mental health, so it really will be a personal preference as to which you go for. On top of the classes you mention, all forms of exercise will give you great mental rewards so consider the not so obvious interval training sessions, bootcamp, and circuits too, as you will also feel on top of the world after a class like that.


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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.