What You Should Know About Postpartum Iron Deficiency

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Female doctor talking to a pregnant woman

When you were pregnant, your doctor most likely recommended that you have your iron levels tested. Pregnancy increases your body’s demand for iron, putting you at risk for iron deficiency, which can sometimes lead to iron-deficiency anemia. This is when the body doesn’t have enough iron to produce a chemical called hemoglobin, which it needs to make red blood cells that deliver oxygen to your entire body.

But even after pregnancy, your iron stores may be deficient, or lower than they should be. This could be due to heavy bleeding during delivery or having multiple births, which requires more nutrients from the body. Iron deficiency can last anywhere from 6 to 12 months after giving birth.

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Signs of Low Iron

When you are low on iron, you may have no symptoms at all, so you may not be aware of an iron deficiency. But many women do notice signs after delivery. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Low energy, to the point that you can’t keep up with regular activities

  • Fatigue that lasts for more than a couple of weeks

  • Extreme irritability or other mood issues

  • Frequent headaches

If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s a good idea to see your doctor and ask about getting a blood test to have your iron levels checked. Your doctor may recommend a blood test as a regular part of your postpartum check-ups to monitor your levels and prevent iron-deficiency anemia.

Getting More Iron

The amount of iron most people need varies by age and other factors. But most premenopausal women should get about 15 mg of iron per day, and pregnant and nursing women need at least 30 mg. Talk to your doctor about how much daily iron you should get, especially if you have an iron deficiency.

If you have low iron levels, fortunately there are some things you can do to increase the iron in your blood. Eating foods high in iron is one of the best ways to do this.

Foods high in iron include:

  • Meats like beef and chicken

  • Seafood like fish, clams, and oysters

  • Kidney or pinto beans

  • Lentils

  • Vegetables and greens like asparagus, broccoli, beet greens, mustard greens, okra, kelp, and parsley

  • Blackstrap molasses

  • >Rice bran

  • Fruits and fruit products like dried peaches, prune juice, plums, and raisins

Iron supplements may also be used to increase your iron levels if you are having trouble getting what you need through food alone. You can take iron supplements in the form of a tablet, but talk to your doctor before taking any iron products. They often cause side effects, such as constipation, diarrhea and nausea. If you’re having trouble tolerating these symptoms, talk to your doctor about iron infusions, which can deliver iron intravenously with fewer side effects.

Iron Absorption

There are some things you can do to help your body better absorb iron, and some things that interfere with absorption. When taking supplements, be sure to:

  • Take the iron supplement with orange juice or vitamin C.

  • Take the supplement between meals. If this causes stomach upset or intestinal problems, ask your doctor about a low dose of ferrous sulfate, which can be taken with food and still absorbed, but with fewer side effects. If side effects remain a problem, consider iron infusion therapy.

  • Do not drink milk, dairy products or caffeine at the same time you take your iron.

  • Ask your doctor about any other medications you are taking that may reduce iron absorption, including antacids. You may need to wait at least 2 hours after taking your medication before taking your iron supplement.

  • Keep iron supplements in a cool place. Warm, humid areas, such as some medicine cabinets, may cause the tablets to disintegrate.

For some women, childbirth can lead to an iron deficiency, but taking the right precautions can help prevent the risk of developing anemia. A quick blood test and some changes in diet can get you back on track, so you can focus on what’s important: your life with your new baby.

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  1. Treatment for women with postpartum iron deficiency anaemia. PubMed Health. US National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0012628/
  2. Postpartum Anemia: Still a Major Problem on a Global Scale. Journal of Pregnancy and Child Health. https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/postpartum-anemia--still-a-major-problem-on-a-global-scale-2...
  3. Caring for Yourself After Childbirth. Kaiser Permanente. https://www.ghc.org/healthAndWellness/?item=/common/healthAndWellness/pregnancy/newMom/care.html
  4. Anemia In-Depth Report. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/health/guides/disease/anemia/print.html
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Oct 21
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