A Guide to Low Iron in Children

Iron is one of the most essential nutrients we eat. It’s used by red blood cells to transport oxygen all over the body. As you can imagine, not having enough iron is a problem that needs to be addressed right away.

Let’s look closely at iron deficiency anemia and how this issue affects young children. During the first few years of life, parents play a big role in whether or not their child is exposed to foods high in iron and are on the front line of defense to prevent anemia.

What is Anemia?

You may have heard this term before, but weren’t sure what exactly it means. Anemia is a condition brought on by a lack of iron in the bloodstream. All of the iron in our blood comes from food (or supplements) we’ve eaten, so having a diet low in this key nutrient brings on anemia.

In some cases, the child will have eaten enough iron but is having trouble absorbing all the iron they consume, which may also lead to anemia.

Symptoms of Anemia

Anemia is pretty distinct and has similar symptoms in adults and children.

  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Pale Skin
  • Cold Skin
  • Brittle fingernails
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Lack of appetite

Prevalence of Anemia in Children

Anemia is a serious issue that requires screening and medical attention, but it is not uncommon in children and adults. About 24% of adults will experience iron deficiency anemia at some point in their lives, and most can treat it without issue.

However, we must note that children are much more susceptible to anemia than adults, with about 47% of pre-school or younger children having encountered this problem.

Because children are more vulnerable to the lack of iron, they must be actively screened for the issue, and parents should watch carefully for the signs of its onset.

Screening for anemia should happen at around 12 months. Your doctor will draw some blood from your little one and examine the hemoglobin content of the blood to see whether or not your child has anemia.

Risk Factors for Children

While the main cause of anemia is the lack of iron, several risk factors make some children more likely to have this condition.

  • Born premature
  • Babies with a mother who has diabetes or severe anemia
  • Vegan or vegetarian diets not rich in iron
  • Growth spurts

Also, a baby’s dairy intake is a big part of whether they’ll be at risk of anemia. The calcium in milk, both breastmilk, and milk from other sources, slows down the absorption of iron into the bloodstream.

Meaning, a diet that contains too much dairy can put the child at risk for developing anemia.

How to Prevent Anemia

If your child carries one or more risk factors for anemia, you should talk to your doctor about some simple steps you can take to lower their risk.

The first thing you might do is to try to add more iron based foods their diet. Depending on the age of your child, this might mean adding a supplement. Your doctor may also recommend more consistent screenings to monitor your child’s iron levels over time.

Recommended Daily Amount of Iron Based on Age

  • Toddlers (1-3 years old): 7 mg
  • Children (4-8 years old): 10 mg
  • Children (9-13 years old): 8 mg
  • Teenage Boys (13+ years): 11 mg
  • Teenage Girls (13+ years): 15 mg

How to Treat Anemia

If your child does become anemic, it’s important to talk to your doctor and to follow the plan you form together to combat this issue.

Anemia can usually be treated just with diet changes, such as cutting back on the amount of milk they consume, but if the problem persists, it can lead to more significant issues down the road. You want to nip this in the bud as quickly as possible.

When adjusting their diet, there are so many tasty and healthy foods that are naturally high in the mineral! Plus, there are plenty of fortified food options such as cereals that specifically look to boost iron levels.

In more acute cases, doctors may recommend what’s known as iron replacement therapy. In other words, you’ll receive an iron supplement to give to your child, usually in the form of a liquid or pill.

Your child will take this along with a high-vitamin C liquid (orange or another citrus juice) on a regular schedule. The vitamin C will help improve the iron’s absorption into the bloodstream.

Monitoring for Anemia

If your child carries risk factors for anemia or if your child has an episode of acute anemia, your doctor may want to consistently screen them for the disease. This means that every few months, your doctor will draw some blood and use it to assess their iron levels.

This number will naturally fluctuate over time, but your doctor will want to make sure the iron stays within recommended values and that it responds as expected to treatment.

Tips for Vegans and Vegetarians

If you’re raising a child without meat or animal products, be aware of how much iron they’re consuming regularly. Some of the main sources of iron are animal products, so this is one area that can be affected by a vegan diet.

However, there are plenty of non-animal sources of iron. Ultimately, there’s no need to worry that you won’t be able to hit the recommended daily amount.

Focus on green, leafy vegetables, whole grains, and lots of beans and legumes. In the earliest stages of life, you might want to consider an iron-fortified cereal.

Talk to Your Pediatrician if You Are Concerned

If you notice the signs of anemia in your child, take them to your doctor right away to assess what’s going on. However, you should take comfort in the fact that this condition is so readily treatable.

As long as you stick with the plan you and your pediatrician form, your child should easily be able to rebound to normal levels in a short amount of time. Just make sure your child has a diet rich in iron!