Healthy Kids: Iron deficiency

Many parents are concerned that their kids may not be getting enough iron. Iron deficiency is relatively common in babies (up to 2 years) and adolescents. These two age groups are especially susceptible due to high iron requirements and rapid growth. Iron is essential for the production of blood and the building of muscle. A deficiency can impair development in children, leading to delays and behavioural disturbances.

Symptoms of iron deficiency can vary but may include pallor, fatigue, intolerance to cold, intellectual impairment, irritability, listlessness and increased susceptibility to infection. It is important to check with your health care provider if you suspect iron deficiency. If there is indeed a lack of iron, a trip to your local health food store is in order — nutritious food and supplementation are key treatment strategies.

Improving iron levels:

For babies, it is important to continue breast feeding or giving iron-fortified formula for at least 12 months. If your baby was low birth weight or premature, an infant supplement may be necessary. It is important to note that for all ages, excessive amounts of cow’s milk (more than 3 cups each day) can contribute to iron deficiency. Cow’s milk protein interferes with iron absorption and sometimes children will drink milk to the exclusion of other foods that may be iron-rich.

Good food sources of iron include leafy greens, dried peas and beans, bananas, dried apricots, prunes, blackstrap molasses, meat, poultry, fish and yeast-leavened breads. For toddlers and teens who are low in iron, provide as many of these foods as possible while limiting cow’s milk and foods with phytates (bran, soy products) and oxalic acid (spinach, chocolate, almonds), which can also interfere with iron absorption.

Supplements can be very helpful for iron deficiency. Vitamin C greatly improves iron absorption and can be given to children in age-appropriate doses. Natural source children’s iron supplements are available in a pleasant-tasting liquid form and are very safe and effective. Parents may also want to try herbal remedies: alfalfa, burdock and kelp are all rich in minerals, and red raspberry leaf can safely be given to infants and children in tea form.

Remember that too much iron is as harmful as not enough iron. Seek the advice of your health care provider before visiting your health food store to find safe, natural and effective solutions for your kids!

Sources: Today’s Herbal Health for Children by L Tenney, Woodland:1996; Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child by J Zand et al, Avery: 1994. Patient Care, Mar 15, 2000; www.keepkidshealthy.com; www.kidshealthworks.com