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Topics > Healthy Outlook > Iron important for a healthy child

Iron important for a healthy child

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wednesday, June 16, 2010
By Dr. Keith White

Breast-feeding has many benefits for a baby. It has been shown to reduce the risk of obesity, diabetes and leukemia, among other things. A less known benefit, however, is the iron in mother's milk.

Breast-feeding is a great way to supply enough iron to infants less than a year old. Iron from breast milk absorbs three times better than iron from other sources.

A lack of iron can lead to anemia, a condition of reduced red blood cells that carry oxygen and leave a child feeling tired, weak and pale. A lack of iron could also lead to emotional and behavioral problems, and a lower IQ.

Babies are born with about 500 mg of iron. By the time they reach 18 years of age, they need to increase the amount of iron in their bodies to about 2,000 mg. Infants absorb about 10 percent of the iron they eat, so most infants need roughly 10 mg of iron every day.

Cow's milk is no substitute for infants in their first year. Milk from a cow contains little iron and can actually make it more difficult for an infant's body to absorb iron.

Testing for anemia is one way to screen for iron deficiency, but those tests only catch extreme cases. Even a child with a normal red blood count (that is, a child who is not anemic) may not be getting enough iron.

Infants at risk of iron deficiency (low birth weight, born premature) should be tested for iron deficiency at least twice between the ages of 9 months and 2 years.

Once detected, iron deficiency anemia is easy to fix. Red blood count will usually return to normal after two months of taking iron supplements. I often recommend the patient continue to take supplements for another 6 months to one year, this helps the body rebuild its iron reserve.

About 750,000 toddlers in the United States are iron deficient. The long-term effects of iron deficiency are still being studied, but evidence indicates that the nutrient is important for developing a healthy brain. Children with anemia are more likely to be in special education classes in school than non-anemic children.

Too many doctors rely on anemia as the only indication of iron deficiency. About 30 years ago, iron deficiency was the most common cause of anemia in children. Then baby formula was fortified with iron and the frequency of anemia among newborns to 1-year-olds dropped dramatically.

Despite that drop, toddlers (age 1-5years) still have the highest rate of iron deficiency.

A toddler's diet is important in the prevention of iron deficiency. Diet is also beneficial in treating iron deficiency, but often is not enough to correct the problem. Along with an iron-rich diet, your child's physician may advise iron supplements in the form of drops or tablets, such as ferrous sulfate.

Iron-rich foods include:
- Chicken, fish and turkey - Eggs - Beans, lentils and other legumes - Fruits like apricots, prunes and raisins - Whole grain bread

Speak with your child's physician about the possibility of iron deficiency, testing for iron deficiency and giving an iron supplement.

Do not exceed the recommended daily amount, though, because there can be side effects, and too much iron is dangerous.

Dr. White is a pediatrician and the president of medical staff at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, part of the County Heath Department.

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