During pregnancy and breastfeeding, the body requires significantly more iron to meet the demands for the growth and development of a child
Iron picks up oxygen from the lungs, loads it onto red blood cells, and transports it to every cell in the body, including the womb. Our cells use this oxygen to make energy, and one of the highest demands for energy is growth of a baby in utero.
According to Health Canada, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy. About 18% of pregnant women are iron deficient3, and research shows that iron deficiency during pregnancy increases the risk of maternal and infant mortality, premature birth, low birth weight and impaired cognitive and behavioural development4-6. Health Canada recommends supplementing 16 to 20mg of iron daily during pregnancy to reduce these risks.
There is significant blood loss during childbirth and in the following weeks, resulting in depletion of iron stores in new moms. During breastfeeding, a baby requires high amounts of iron to continue healthy growth and development. Interestingly, breastfed babies tend to receive the same amount of iron from mom, regardless of mom’s iron level7. This means mom preferentially gives iron to her baby trough the breastmilk, depletingher own stores.
Sleeplessness in new parenthood is normal, but iron deficiency is a separate and preventable cause of postpartum fatigue. Fatigue in breastfeeding women is significantly correlated with postpartum depression and early cessation of breastfeeding.
The best way to understand your iron status is by having a blood test to measure something called ferritin, which is our iron storage. Ferritin is not reliable in the first six weeks postpartum, so it should be tested during pregnancy and repeated six to eight weeks postpartum.
The tricky part is that “normal” ferritin is defined as 5-272 ug/L. Since this is a wide range, you can imagine that someone with a ferritin of 7 ug/L would feel very different from someone with a ferritin level of 200 ug/L.Dr. Hilary suggests aiming for a ferritin of 70-100 ug/L to support the healthy growth and development of baby during pregnancy, as well as mom’s increased iron requirements during breastfeeding.
Some groups of people are likely to have low iron, including:
During pregnancy and breastfeeding
Vegans and vegetarians
Women with heavy periods
People lacking a nutrient-rich diet
Children with behavioural concerns or ADHD
People experiencing fatigue, depression, or brain fog
People taking acid blocking medications for heartburn
People with digestive conditions such as Celiac disease, colitis, Crohn’s disease, and SIBO