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Iron deficiency in children: Prevention tips for parents

Is your child getting enough iron in his or her diet? Find out what causes iron deficiency in children, how to recognize it and how to prevent it.


Why is iron important for children?
Iron is a nutrient that's essential to your child's growth and development. Iron helps move oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and helps muscles store and use oxygen. If your child's diet lacks iron, he or she may develop a condition called iron deficiency. Iron deficiency in children can occur at many levels, from depleted iron stores to anemia — a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body's tissues, providing energy and giving skin a healthy color. Untreated iron deficiency in children can cause physical and mental delays in areas such as walking and talking.
How much iron do children need?

Babies are born with iron stored in their bodies, but a steady amount of additional iron is needed to fuel a child's growth and development. Here's a guide to iron needs at certain ages:
Age group    Recommended amount of iron a day
7 to 12 months     11 milligrams
1 to 3 years     7 milligrams
4 to 8 years     10 milligrams
9 to 13 years     8 milligrams
14 to 18 years, girls     15 milligrams
14 to 18 years, boys     11 milligrams
What are the risk factors for iron deficiency in children?

Infants and children at highest risk of iron deficiency include:

    Babies who are born prematurely — more than three weeks before their due date — or have a low birth weight
    Babies who drink cow's milk before age 1
    Breast-fed babies who aren't given complementary foods containing iron after age 6 months
    Babies who drink formula that isn't fortified with iron
    Children ages 1 to 5 who drink more than 24 ounces (710 milliliters) of cow's milk, goat's milk or soy milk a day
    Children who have certain health conditions, such as chronic infections or restricted diets

Adolescent girls also are at higher risk of iron deficiency because their bodies lose iron during menstruation.

What are the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in children?

Too little iron can impair your child's ability to function. However, most signs and symptoms of iron deficiency in children don't appear until iron deficiency anemia occurs. Signs and symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

    Fatigue or weakness
    Pale skin
    Poor appetite
    Shortness of breath
    Inflammation of the tongue
    Difficulty maintaining body temperature
    Increased likelihood of infections
    Irregular heartbeat
    Behavioral problems
    Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or pure starch

How can iron deficiency in children be prevented?

Take steps to prevent iron deficiency in your child by paying attention to his or her diet. For example:

    Breast-feed or use iron-fortified formula. Breast-feeding until your child is age 1 is recommended. Iron from breast milk is more easily absorbed than is the iron found in formula. If breast-feeding isn't possible, use iron-fortified infant formula. Cow's milk isn't a good source of iron for babies and isn't recommended for children younger than age 1.
    Encourage a balanced diet. When you begin serving your baby solids — typically between ages 4 months and 6 months — feed him or her foods with added iron, such as single-grain, iron-fortified baby cereal. For older children, good sources of iron include egg yolks, red meat, chicken, fish, beans and dark green leafy vegetables. Limit foods that are high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals, such as soda and potato chips.
    Enhance absorption. Vitamin C helps promote the absorption of dietary iron. Although citrus juice isn't generally recommended for children younger than age 1, you can help your child absorb iron by offering other foods rich in vitamin C — such as melon, strawberries, apricots, kiwi, broccoli, tomatoes and potatoes.
    Consider iron supplements. If your baby was born prematurely or with a low birth weight or you're breast-feeding after age 6 months and your baby isn't eating two or more servings a day of iron-rich foods, such as fortified cereal or pureed meat, talk to your child's doctor about oral iron supplements.

Should I have my child screened for iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia are typically diagnosed through blood tests. Some experts recommend that all infants be screened for iron deficiency anemia starting between ages 9 months and 12 months and again 6 months later. Others recommend screening only infants ages 6 months to 12 months who have an increased risk of developing iron deficiency anemia. Ask your child's doctor about his or her screening recommendations, especially if you're concerned about iron deficiency. Be prepared to provide details about your child's diet. Depending on the circumstances and possible screening results, the doctor might recommend an oral iron supplement or a daily multivitamin.

Iron deficiency in children can be prevented. To keep your child's growth and development on track, pay attention to how much iron your child is getting through his or her diet and talk to your child's doctor about the need for screenings and iron supplements.

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