• Kids

Could your child have an iron deficiency?

What to look for, and how to treat it 

By Green + Simple kids health expert Kellie Montgomery

Did you know that iron deficiency is the number one micronutrient deficiency worldwide? It matters, because, for children, iron is absolutely critical for not only their bone and muscle growth, but also for their immune function, and even their brain development. 

Iron is vital to your infants’ neurological development and research suggests low iron at critical brain growth periods may have lasting effects on their brain. There is evidence that six-to 24-month-old infants with iron-deficiency anaemia are at risk for poorer cognitive, motor, social-emotional, and neurophysiological development in the short- and long-term outcome. 

How do I know if my child is iron deficient?

Signs of iron deficiency in children range from fatigue, pale skin and recurrent infections, to behavioural issues like irritability and difficulty sleeping. Iron deficiency in children can often mimic symptoms of ADHD, and some research suggests it may be involved in the pathophysiology of the disorder. There is even research that also suggests children with low iron carry a higher risk of dental caries. So, it’s absolutely critical that we get the levels of iron right!

The tricky thing is, sometimes it isn’t as simple as just increasing the amount of iron your child is eating. Because there are lots of factors that affect how your child will absorb that iron. As a nutritionist, I’d look at your child’s stomach acid and their overall diet – perhaps your child is eating too many competing nutrients that are blocking the absorption of the iron (these include a high dairy, and a high grain diet). 

Even if your child has been supplementing with iron, the type of iron used in the supplement, and the timing of when the supplement is taken will all affect how well it’s going to be utilised. 

There is good research that recommends iron supplements are best taken in the morning or the evening, and only every second day. And the latest research even suggests that a specific strain of microbiome could be involved in absorption at the gut level; yep, the old gut comes into it, as well!

Where do we find iron?

There are two types of iron: heme iron (found in animal based products) and non-heme iron (from plants, and eggs), and generally they are packaged up with our protein foods. Heme iron is more readily absorbed, but we can increase the rate of absorption of non-heme iron by pairing it with some Vitamin C-rich foods (such as vegetables and fruits). 

Sources of Heme iron:

  • Liver
  • Marrow
  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Seafood
  • Pork
  • Chicken (especially the darker meats closer to the bone)
  • Turkey

Sources of Non-Heme iron:

  • Lentils and legumes
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Leafy green vegetables, like spinach, kale and parsley
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds

Simple Tips to Boost your child’s iron intake

  • Include iron-rich foods with every meal (like, eggs for breakfast, pulses for lunch, and meat for dinner)
  • Add liver into bolognese sauce, and lentils into sausage rolls
  • Make sure your child isn’t over doing it on the competing nutrients, particularly lots of dairy foods
  • Processed foods generally replace wholefoods, and all the nutrients that come with them – including iron, so reduce the amount of processed food your child is eating

Did you know that an infant aged 7 months old requires more iron per day than an adult male?

In the third trimester of pregnancy, babies accrete enough iron to last them through to around 6 months of age. (This is impacted by a number of maternal conditions, and also pre-term birth.) From 6 months onwards, their needs for iron dramatically increase; between the ages of 7-12 months of age, an infant requires 11mg of iron per day (this is more than an adult male!). From 1 to 3 years, they require around 7mg/day, and between 4 to 8 years of age, around 10mg/day.

Because of their needs for growth, children have relatively high iron demands, so including plenty of iron-rich foods in their diet, every day, is critical.

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