How to raise iron-rich kids

Posted on 15 May 2017

Children need iron to grow, think and develop. Dr Heidi Ackermann, a paediatrician at Mediclinic George, gives age-appropriate guidelines to help parents ensure their children are getting enough of this valuable nutrient from an early age.

Iron deficiency should not be a problem if your child is developing and growing normally and eating a healthy diet including foods rich in iron. However, children with diets low in iron or vitamin C, and children with diseases of the gut that cause poor absorption such as coeliac disease, may fall short. In addition, young girls who suffer from heavy menstrual flow can develop iron deficiency anaemia, as can children with blood disorders like haemophilia.

It’s best to build up a baby’s iron stores from birth. Preterm babies and babies born to mothers who were iron deficient during pregnancy are most at risk for iron deficiency. This table shows the ideal way to boost a baby’s dietary iron.

0-6 months Should receive milk exclusively, ideally in the form of breast milk, failing that infant formula and not store-bought milk or unmodified cow’s milk
6 months Start introducing iron and vitamin C rich solid foods alongside breast milk or infant formula. Include leafy green vegetables and fruit.
6+ months Introduce meat alongside other solid foods and breast milk or infant formula. Meat should be puréed.

Warning signs to watch out for

A child who is iron deficient may not have symptoms, but some warning signs can include delayed developmental milestones, recurrent infections, reduced energy levels or exercise intolerance, and eating non-foods such as soil or ice.

If your child’s doctor suspects iron deficiency (based on medical history and an examination), blood tests can be ordered. ‘It’s likely that ferritin and haemoglobin will be tested,’ says Dr Ackermann. ‘Ferritin measures the body’s iron stores, and haemoglobin (the structures within red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body) is the actual test for anaemia. If the haemoglobin is low, the doctor will also review the size and colour of the red blood cells, which are typically small and pale if iron deficiency is the cause of anaemia.’

What can be done

Elemental iron in the form of ferrous sulphate is usually prescribed to treat iron deficiency anaemia. ‘It’s best absorbed if given with juice between meals,’ says Dr Ackermann.

Depending on the severity and cause of the anaemia, it will usually resolve after three months of oral iron medication and improvements in dietary intake of iron. Children who are very ill due to iron deficiency anaemia may require a blood transfusion, and children who don’t respond adequately to oral iron therapy may require intravenous iron replacement or a drip.

‘If you are concerned about your child’s iron intake, over the counter iron supplements are usually safe, even if your child is not iron deficient, as long as you stick to the recommended doses,’ says Dr Ackermann.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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