Iron is essential for your child’s development, and an iron deficiency can affect your child’s health and growth.
Iron Deficiency Anaemia in Children – a Guide to Help Your Children
Iron is an important dietary mineral for all living organisms in our oxygen-rich environment. Iron is required for metabolic processes, such as oxygen transport in the blood, cellular respiration, DNA synthesis, cell proliferation, and various other crucial bodily functions. This is all essential in providing energy for daily life. Iron has also been shown to be vital for brain development during pregnancy and early childhood.
What is Iron Deficiency Anaemia?
Anaemia is a condition that results from the number of red blood cells in your body dropping below the normal value for your age. This is problematic because red blood cells carry a protein called haemoglobin, which in itself carries oxygen throughout your body. When there aren’t enough red blood cells and haemoglobin carrying sufficient oxygen to your muscles and vital organs, your body simply can’t function optimally – often leaving you feeling tired, low on energy and unfocused.
Anaemia in childhood is defined as a haemoglobin (Hb) concentration below cut-off levels established by the World Health Organization:
less than 1 g/dL in children aged 6 - 59 months;
less than 11.5 g/dL in children aged 5 - 11 years; and
less than 12 g/dL in children aged 12 - 14 years.
Causes of Iron Deficiency Anaemia in Childhood
As the name implies, Iron Deficiency Anaemia is specifically a form of anaemia (there are various other forms of this ailment too) which occurs as a direct consequence of insufficient iron intake from the daily diet.
Children, particularly during their first year of life (and to a similar extent during adolescence), are especially prone to anaemia due to rapid growth spurts and mental development. These growth phases can directly be a potential cause of the condition, when the body needs more iron to sustain itself. This is particularly due to the expanding red blood cell mass during growth.
The adult body is largely self-sustaining as approximately 95% of the iron required for new red cell haemoglobin is recycled internally from aged red cells. The remaining 5% of iron requirements comes directly from the diet. Infants grow very rapidly and have a more constant requirement for iron consumption and synthesis to sustain the body’s physical demands. Comparatively, less than 70% of iron is recycled in an infant’s body with the remainder supplemented from dietary sources.
Adolescent girls are also at risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to blood loss during their menstrual periods.
Children of anaemic mothers are in a vulnerable group with the potential for iron deficiency anaemia as they’ll likely be receiving insufficient amounts of iron in utero and from breastfeeding during infancy.
Major risk factors for the development of iron deficiency in children include:
- Premature birth and low birth weight
- Exclusive breastfeeding after six months and not including solid foods
- High intake of cow’s milk in young children less than two years of age
- Low or no meat intake
- Vegetarian and vegan diet with insufficient nutrient balance
- Poor diet in the second year of life
- Possible gastrointestinal diseases.
Infants, children and teenagers undergo rapid growth spurts, which increase their need for iron in their diet during these specific phases. Let’s delve a little deeper into some causes of iron deficiency in children by age group:
Babies less than 6 months old:
Newborns receive their base iron stores directly from the mother in utero during pregnancy. So the mother’s diet and iron intake during pregnancy is very important to give the baby a good start in life.
The dietary iron requirement of infants up to 6 months of age has been estimated at 0.27 mg per day. The iron in breastmilk is readily bioavailable and is sufficient to cover your young baby’s iron needs.
Low birth weight or prematurely born babies are at an increased risk of iron deficiency and may need iron supplementation. Be sure to discuss this with your paediatrician or healthcare provider.
Babies aged 6 to 12 months:
By the time that your baby doubles its birth weight (roughly by 6 months), its pre-birth iron stores would typically be depleted. Between 6 – 12 months of age your baby requires approximately 11 mg of iron per day – more than what is available from breastmilk alone. So it is important to start including iron-rich solid foods at this stage to avoid diet related iron deficiency.
Late introduction of solids into baby’s diet is a common cause of iron deficiency before the first birthday.
Children aged 1 to 5 years
Breastmilk contains a small amount of iron, which is good for your child. But prolonged breastfeeding over the first few years can also lead to possible iron deficiency, especially if breastmilk replaces solid foods in the diet.
Children who drink other low-iron milks such as cow’s milk, goat’s milk and soymilk milk in preference of eating solid foods might be at risk of iron deficiency.
Adolescent girls particularly are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia because of a number of factors. These include:
- Growth spurts and hormonal changes during puberty
- Direct iron loss through menstrual cycles
- Malnutrition from “dieting” that restricts a balanced nutritional intake.
Signs of Iron Deficiency Anaemia
Some of the typical signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia in children may include:
- Pale appearance
- Behavioural problems and uncharacteristic moodiness
- Repeat infections or illness
- Loss of appetite
- Tiredness and persistent lethargy
- Increased sweating
- Strange ‘food’ cravings (pica) like eating ice, dirt and paper
- Very slow growth below the expected rate.
Prevention of Iron Deficiency Anaemia
As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. This is absolutely the case to offer the best kind of treatment for your children who might be at risk of iron deficiency anaemia. Iron deficiency anaemia can be avoided by feeding your children a regular and well-balanced diet filled with dark leafy greens, red meat or appropriate iron-rich alternatives such as blueberries, beans, chickpeas and nuts if you follow a vegan based diet. If you’re concerned that your diet is falling short of the daily iron needs, topping that up with a high quality iron supplement is a good option to consider.
It’s worth considering the following guidelines for your children:
- Avoid cow’s milk until your baby over 12 months old as this can decreased absorption of iron in the gut.
- Introduce solid foods around 6 months and don’t solely breastfeed your child after this age.
- If you’re feeding your child milk formula as a substitute for breastmilk, look for an iron-rich brand.
- Feed your children foods high in Vitamin C to help the absorption of iron.
- If your children have any dietary restrictions (can’t eat dairy products, for example), talk with your doctor about any nutritional supplements that may be required.
- For more serious or inherited kinds of anaemia, you should consult your doctors who specialize in anemia and other blood problems.
Do You Need an Iron-Rich Supplement?
BlueIron is a vegan friendly iron supplement which can be taken during pregnancy and breastfeeding to support your child’s growth and development in utero and during the early stages of life. If you’re personally struggling with low iron levels, taking Blueiron can help to regain appropriate iron levels and transfer the much needed iron to your baby.
Blueiron liquid iron’s great blueberry taste is also an easy way to get your children to enjoy swallowing a daily iron supplement to help aid their rapid growth and development. For teenagers additional iron supplementation can aid concentration and energy levels, while also mitigating the risks of iron deficiency anaemia particularly in girls during their periods.
Direct iron supplementation is not generally recommended for children under the age of 3 years, so be sure to consult your doctor or paediatrician before giving any iron supplements to very young children.