Iron deficiency anaemia is an extremely common disease in children. Unfortunately, it is not a disease that is well-known or adequately publicised. For this reason – even though iron deficiency anaemia has consequences that can be devastating and long-term for children – not much action is taken by parents to either identify or treat the disease.
If you want the best for your child – and who doesn’t? You must learn how to identify iron deficiency in your child. The mineral iron is almost a magic potion for your child. And if you are working hard to give your child an edge over his peers by buying and providing every food, drink, book or game that claims to benefit children – then you must not miss out on feeding your child this magic potion. All your efforts to make your child the best may be useless in the absence of this magic mineral.
At what age can a child have iron deficiency anemia
Iron deficiency anemia can set in – in babies. Babies from the age of 6 months are prone to iron deficiency which can lead to anemia.
During pregnancy almost every mother swallows the reddish capsules that are meant to provide her with extra iron. The iron of course helps the mother by filling her blood with iron and ensuring that she does not suffer from anemia, in addition – it also fills the baby’s body and blood with iron. The iron the mother takes in through capsules – reaches the baby through the umbilical cord and the baby is thus safe from iron deficiency anemia. The iron that the baby receives like this is sufficient for the baby through pregnancy and for the first 6 months after birth while the baby is on exclusive breastfeed. By the time the baby is 6 months old however – the iron that was delivered to the baby through pregnancy gets exhausted because it goes towards helping the baby grow and function in the first 6 months. At this time – if the baby is not started on solids that contain iron – the baby can begin to show signs of iron deficiency. So iron deficiency anemia can set in – as early as six months into life on earth.
Most people are unaware of the fact that babies and children can be iron deficient so mothers promptly forget about taking iron once they deliver their babies. And no one ever thinks about checking if young children are suffering from iron deficiency anemia. The belief among parents is – that because children do not lose blood in any way – they cannot possibly become iron deficient. While this seems like a logical conclusion – it is a wrong conclusion. Working on such a misplaced and misleading conclusion and lead to disastrous consequences.
What parents must know about iron deficiency anemia in children
Children in fact are extremely prone to anemia. In several studies it has been seen that up to 74% children are anemic and in the majority of these children anemia is due to iron deficiency.
Even though children are not losing blood – they become anemic because they are growing rapidly. When children grow – they produce more and more cells and every cell needs iron. When iron is in such high demand, if adequate amounts of iron do not enter the body through the diet, the body easily becomes iron deficient and this results in anemia.
What does the mineral Iron do in the body
Iron is one of the most vital minerals in the body. The primary function of iron is – to carry oxygen from the lungs to every distant cell in the body. Iron is required for this because it is a component of hemoglobin in the blood.
Iron is also required by every cell in the body to function normally. This is because it is part of a crucial cellular enzyme that every cell requires. Every cell in the body therefore requires Iron.
What is anemia
Anemia is the disease that results as a consequence of iron deficiency. It is what is visible of this deficiency of this essential mineral – deep inside the body. It is usually the only sign that a person is Iron deficient.
The signs of anaemia are the pale lips, tongue and palms of anaemic persons. When a blood test is done – iron deficiency anaemia is also obvious in the low haemoglobin values on blood test.
What is most frightening however, is that anemia is just the tip of the iceberg. Iron deficiency causes a vast invisible devastation in the body, some of which is irreversible.
What does iron deficiency cause besides anemia?
The brain develops rapidly and crucially during childhood. When there are insufficient amounts of iron in the body of the child during that period – the brain cannot function or develop properly. When described in medical terminology – the deficiency of iron impairs brain metabolism, compromises neurotransmitter function and myelination. What this translates into for the child is – lower IQ, difficulty in paying attention and focusing, learning difficulties and behavioral abnormalities.
A lot of this damage to the brain can be irreversible. The damage that happens in the early years can keep causing problems for the child in later life. It can even lead to poor performance in school in adolescence.
Children who are iron deficient are doubly disadvantaged. Not only do they have mental problems their physical ability is impaired as well. Because of iron deficiency they do not reach their full physical potential because their muscles do not get sufficient oxygen.
What is worse is that these children also fall sick more frequently. This is because the immune system needs iron to function well and kill various germs. The immune system also needs iron to replace the cells that die fighting germs. Iron deficient children therefore fall easy prey to respiratory infections which have a high chance of turning into pneumonia. Because these children are sick so frequently – they miss out on school and this impairs their mental and physical development.
Why do children from good families have Iron deficiency
One of the most worrying things about iron deficiency is that it is not a disease of the poor. Even in families where food is available in plenty children are iron deficient because they eat incomplete meals, fad foods and junk foods. These diets are low in nutritious value and result in Iron deficiency.
Even traditional Indian diets can be iron deficient because of the large quantities of cereals like rice and wheat that are part of these diets which are poor sources of iron. Cereals are also not the best food because they impair the body’s ability to absorb iron from other foods.
Another cause for the prevalence of Iron deficiency in India is vegetarianism. A child can absorb 20% of the iron present in a meat containing diet and 5-10% iron in a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets are also a problem because of their high content of phytates and phosphates that inhibit the absorption of iron from other sources in the diet.
What can you do if your child is Iron deficient
Vegetarians cannot become Non-vegetarian. And Indians cannot abandon rice and wheat. However some changes can be made to the diet in order to incorporate Iron rich foods, and that should certainly be done.
Cereals like Ragi and Bajra are rich in Iron and can replace rice and wheat at some meals. Ragi is a fantastic traditional weaning food that has unfortunately been abandoned. It is important to introduce these tastes to children early so that they learn to love them.
Eating a bowl of dal each at every meal is a practice that should also be adopted by the family so that children learn by example since pulses are a better source of Iron than cereals. Green leafy vegetables, are known to be rich in Iron and should be eaten in large quantities.
Fruits and dry fruits also contain large quantities of iron. They have the added advantage of being ready to eat and not requiring cooking and children should be encouraged to eat these as snacks.
Amla, Banana, Guava, Dates, Raisins and Pistas are good sources of Iron. Jaggery also contains iron and can replace sugar where possible.
The non-vegetarian sources of iron – eggs, red meat, fish and liver are rich sources that are also absorbed easily and non-vegetarians must certainly eat these.
If your child is already iron deficient however, changes in the diet are unlikely to help. The deficiency must be overcome with Iron supplements prescribed by a doctor. The level of iron achieved thereafter can be maintained with an improved diet.
Iron supplements must also be taken without fail during pregnancy because these build Iron stores in the foetus.
Always watch out for signs of Iron deficiency and treat with urgency. It is one of the most crucial factors that will keep your child mentally and physically healthy and help him to achieve his full potential.
Read more about Iron Deficiency Anemia here