Iron and pregnancy

woman drinking milk

When you are pregnant, you can meet most of your nutritional needs by eating according to Canada's Food Guide. However, your diet alone cannot give you high enough levels of some nutrients, such as iron.

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Importance of iron

When you are pregnant, iron is important to support the healthy growth of your baby. Your growing baby needs to build up a store of iron to reduce the chance of iron deficiency.

Make sure you take a daily multivitamin with 16 to 20 mg of iron before and during your pregnancy. If you had low iron or anemia before pregnancy, or if you are a vegetarian, see your health care provider. You may need more than the recommended daily supplement.

Risks of low iron

Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy. It happens most often during the third trimester.

During pregnancy, you might have a low level of iron because:

  • your diet is low in iron-containing foods
  • you need more iron than you did before you were pregnant
  • your diet may not have enough of the type of iron you can absorb easily

If you do not get enough iron when you are pregnant, you and your growing baby can both have health problems.

Low iron during pregnancy can cause you to suffer from:

  • fatigue
  • cardiovascular stress
  • reduced work capacity
  • lower resistance to infection
  • iron deficiency, which can lead to anemia

Iron deficiency can also cause serious risks for your baby, including:

  • death
  • low birth weight
  • premature delivery

Your health care provider will assess if or how much extra iron you need from supplements.

Dietary sources of iron

When you are pregnant, you can get a lot of your iron from healthy foods in your diet. Iron-rich foods include:

  • red meat
  • eggs and poultry
  • whole-grain and enriched breads and cereals
  • dried beans (cooked or canned), peas and lentils

The iron in meat, fish and poultry is the easiest for our bodies to absorb and use. Even including small amounts of animal-based iron can help you absorb the iron from other foods in your meal.

You can also choose foods fortified with iron. Look for the term "iron" in the ingredient list when you choose grain products like cereals, bread and pasta.

See Health Canada's prenatal nutrition guidelines for a list of foods rich in iron.

Get the most from iron

Certain foods, drinks and supplements can get in the way of absorbing iron. Take your iron supplement an hour or two before or after coffee, tea and calcium supplements.

When you eat foods rich in vitamin C at each meal, you can absorb more iron. This is important if your meal does not contain meat.

Great sources of vitamin C are:

  • kiwis
  • broccoli
  • mangos
  • potatoes
  • cantaloupe
  • strawberries
  • sweet peppers
  • citrus fruits
  • tomatoes

If you are healthy, the total amount of iron in your daily diet should be 27mg (including supplements) if:

  • your diet includes sources of vitamin C
  • you already have healthy iron levels before pregnancy
  • your diet has sources of animal-based and plant-based iron

Your health care provider may provide you with a different supplement dose.

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