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Iron Deficiency and your baby's Neurodevelopment

Today we wanted to talk to you about the importance of iron in both the maternal and infant diet. Did you know that iron deficiency can alter metabolic, endocrine, and neurological function/development?

During periods of rapid growth for your baby--in both the womb and postnatally--iron is in high demand in all parts of the body. This is because it helps build tissue and aids nervous system development.

These critical periods of growth are within the last trimester of pregnancy as well as 6-12 months after birth. While the first 6 months of your baby's life are also periods of rapid growth, it is typically assumed that your baby has stored enough iron during your pregnancy to last them until solid foods enter their diet.

Infants that are born preterm are at risk for iron deficiency during the first couple months of life. Why? Preterm infants go through a period called 'catch-up growth' of which they are rapidly trying to reach the weight/length of a term baby (aka they NEED LOTS OF IRON).

Another factor for building and maintaining infant iron stores is maternal diet and health status. If a mother is iron deficient or has lower iron stores she will not be able to adequately fill her baby's iron stores.

Maternal diagnoses that could affect infant iron status...

Women that have gestational hypertension may experience insufficiency of blood flow to the placenta. This causes her baby to be exposed to lower volumes of blood which in turn decreases the amount of exposure to iron and other nutrients. Believe it or not, gestational diabetes also plays a role in iron levels in infants due to bouts of hyperglycemia interfering with the iron transfer.


During periods of rapid growth, iron is prioritized to the red blood cells as opposed to the brain or other tissues. Essentially, this means that if the baby does not have enough iron, iron stores will first go to the red blood cells and then the remainder will be distributed to other tissues.

Iron deficiency is detrimental to rapid brain development because iron WILL aid the growth in the rest of the body FIRST, rather than aiding brain tissue growth.

So what is iron's role in brain development?

Iron plays a HUGE role in the development of certain brain functions. For example, the ability to establish reward, moods, memories, motivation, motor control, alertness, recall, and so many more neurobehavioral functions-- are all affected and improved by adequate iron stores.

THIS MEANS that if your child's body is iron deficient while the brain is developing, your child could have issues in both motor skills and cognitive development.


Multiple studies have looked into how iron deficiency during pregnancy and infancy effects functions later on in life. These studies have shown negative effects lasting over 21 years of age.


  • Children at 3 years of age who experienced iron deficiency during their developmental years were proven to have decreased retrieval memory skills.

  • At 5 years of age, iron-deficient children showed impaired language, attention, and fine motor skills.

  • At 10 years of age, iron-deficient children showed slower auditory and visual processing, increased levels of ADHD, worsened inhibitory control and recognition memory.

  • Through adolescence, we see impaired executive function and cognitive test scores.

  • At age 21, we see altered brain connectivity.

  • In the adult population, individuals who experienced iron deficiency during their developmental years have shown increased rates of schizophrenia.


How can we prevent this?

We must be aware that these side effects are not just from iron deficiencies or diagnosed anemia. Low iron levels that are not picked up by normal iron tests can still cause harmful effects.

Anemia is the end-stage of iron deficiency. It will only present itself when your body or your baby's body is almost COMPLETELY depleted of iron. If detected early enough (a.k.a. earlier than an anemia diagnosis), iron repletion can save your baby from the long term effects mentioned above.

We have a very PROACTIVE approach to an iron deficiency at Mamas Maternal Health. Unfortunately, often healthcare providers are REACTIVE--meaning they solve problems once they arrive and rarely take action in preventing them from happening in the first place.

What can you do NOW to avoid any type of iron deficiency?

Make sure you consume iron-rich foods such as beef or other meats, spinach, pistachios, etc. Also, make sure you are taking your prenatal multi-vitamin WITH MINERALS! You may have the tasty gummy vitamin, however, we can almost guarantee you that it does not have iron in it. Don't believe us? Go check... Let us know if we're wrong!

"Did someone say Choline?!"

Another way to help reduce iron deficiency effects or reverse them past the point of repletion is with Choline.

Choline has been found to help increase iron repletion and prevent neurobehavioral effects even after the known iron repletion period.

Choline works with neurotransmitter synthesis and repairs dendrite complexity. What does this mean? Choline can help your body rebuild tissues that were neglected due to an iron deficiency.

Foods with high amounts of choline are eggs and leafy greens. While choline may not be 100% effective, it is something to certainly think about.

All vitamins and minerals play a huge role in the body--none more important than another, AND without one-- the other becomes only half as effective.

If you are looking to WORK for your nutrition and empower yourself through your diet -- while also improving your baby's health, then Mamas Maternal Health wants to work with YOU! Fill out our coaching application today and let's do this thing TOGETHER!

Until next time! Stay amazing!

Mikayla and Cassie

Mamas Maternal Health Registered Dietitians/Lactation Counselors


Bastian, T., Iron Deficiency and Neurodevelopment- Potential Targets for INtervention from Clinical Models., University of Minnesota, Department of Pediatrics

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