Growing Children Need Iron
By Caitlyn Vanderhaeghe, B.A., B.Ed.
You may have heard that getting enough iron in the diet is important, especially for children and women, but do you know why?
Having healthy iron levels is extremely important during pregnancy when a baby is growing and developing, and when breastfeeding. That is why it is recommended that moms take iron before deciding to have a baby, during pregnancy, and while breastfeeding. Infants, toddlers, children, and teens need iron for further growth and development. Mental, physical and emotional development depend on your child’s iron stores.
Iron and Brain Development
Iron is needed for the developing brain as it is used to make neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells. There are many types of neurotransmitters and each play different roles in the body.
Three examples are:
- Serotonin: Involved in mood regulation, blood clotting, digestion, and bowel function
- Dopamine: Involved in motivation and reward, and plays a small role indigestion
- Noradrenaline (norepinephrine): Involved in the stress response (fight or flight)
Iron also helps build the myelin sheath around nerves. We know that a decreased availability of iron in the diet is associated with hypomyelination and demyelinating disorders like multiple sclerosis. Iron is also needed for the development of brain structures involved in forming new memories, attention, processing emotions, regulating behaviour, mood, and sleep. It has also been found that children with iron deficiency anemia may have delayed cognition. Cognition is the ability to think and reason.
If a child is suffering an iron deficiency when the brain is developing, lasting abnormalities in the brain may occur if iron stores are not reversed quickly. Developing brain abnormalities can show up as the following:
- Hyperactivity followed by exhaustion
- Frequent tantrums and melt downs
- Difficulty paying attention or performing in school
- Difficulty problem solving
- Poor grades, difficulty learning
- Hard time falling asleep and waking up
Iron and Physical Development
Although there are variations in individual children’s motor development, milestones generally follow a recognized progression. The relationship between iron status in children and gross and fine motor skills has been well studied. Children with iron deficiency anemia have been found to perform worse on tests of motor development than kids with good iron scores. The good news is, once the iron deficiency was treated these kids ‘caught up’ to the other children.
Reduced physical development due to iron depletion may appear with the following symptoms:
- Stunted growth and slower weight gain, also called failure to thrive in infants
- Shorter or smaller than other children their age
- Muscle weakness – less physical stamina than non-iron deficient children
- Poor motor skills – slower to learn tasks such as crawling and walking
- Immune function – sick more often
Other symptoms of iron deficiency and anemia include:
- Dark under-eye circles
- Craving and eating non-nutritive items like ice, dirt, paper or clay (this is called pica)
- Low appetite
- Pale skin, lips, and lining of eyelids
- Thinning or curved nails
- Grinding teeth
Iron is an essential mineral used in many important functions in your child’s body including:
- A healthy immune system
- The manufacturing of healthy red blood cells and hemoglobin
- Energy levels in the body
Hemoglobin is an iron-containing protein found in red blood cells, which delivers oxygen to the cells of the body. Hemoglobin helps maintain the normal size and shape of red blood cells.
Myoglobin is an iron-containing protein similar to hemoglobin that binds with oxygen, however this protein is only found in muscle cells and myoglobin provides oxygen and energy to muscles.
Ferritin is a protein that stores iron. High levels of ferritin are found in the spleen, liver, skeletal muscle and bone marrow.
From Low Iron to Anemia
Iron deficiency anemia occurs gradually.
Iron depletion occurs first. Iron is stored as Ferritin. When ferritin stores begin to drop the body struggles to maintain hemoglobin at healthy levels.
Iron deficiency eventually develops when ferritin stores are exhausted and hemoglobin levels start to fall.
Iron deficiency anemia is diagnosed when you no longer have enough hemoglobin in your blood cells. When hemoglobin blood levels drop the body can no longer carry enough oxygen to the body’s tissues. Ferritin is further depleted.
It is important to note that low ferritin, not full-blown iron-deficiency anemia, affects growth and development in children of all ages. Addressing low iron long before iron deficiency anemia is diagnosed is important because some behavioural and developmental abnormalities may not be easily reversed, especially in infants and toddlers.
What Causes Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in both the developing and developed world, with young children and pregnant women at greatest risk.
The top causes of iron deficiency are:
- Iron intake in the diet is too low
- Iron needs are not being met
- Poor digestion or absorption
- Blood loss resulting from injury, bleeding disorders, menstruation, or digestive conditions such as ulcers, Crohn’s disease, and colitis
- Growing infants and children
Testing Iron Levels
Some parents may not want to have their child’s iron levels tested because they are afraid of needles or do not want to subject their child to a painful experience. The truth is, the lasting consequences of an untreated iron deficiency are far worse than a trip to the doctor and a needle prick. The faster an iron deficiency is addressed, the less the child’s long-term health will suffer.
If your child’s iron test result show a deficiency, iron supplementation is recommended. Ideally, have your child should return for testing every 3 months until iron levels are optimal.
Be sure your doctor tests your child’s ferritin levels as well as hemoglobin and that you ask to see the results. Many doctors will say results are normal because they are within normal range; however, current ranges are too broad and vary between labs. Children will often experience symptoms of an iron deficiency while still in a ‘normal’ range. The lower the level, even when within the normal range, the greater the likeliness of iron deficiency.
An example of normal ferritin lab ranges:
- 25 to 200 ng/mL for newborns
- 200 to 600 ng/mL at 1 month old
- 50 to 200 ng/mL at 2 to 5 months old
- 12 to 140 ng/mL for children 6 months to 15 years
How to Solve Iron Deficiency
If levels are low, it is important to address iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia as quickly as possible.
Dietary changes plus a mineral supplement is the best way to increase levels and help ensure that your child is getting their daily iron needs met.
Although breast milk contains highly bioavailable iron, it does not contain enough iron to meet the needs of premature or underweight infants, or babies older than 4 to 6 months. Very young babies need supplementation in addition to breast milk, while babies older than 4 months need iron containing foods added to their diet.
If you are planning on having another baby, make sure you supplement your own diet with iron before becoming pregnant again. Low iron stores during pregnancy increase an infant’s chances of low iron at birth.
Foods and Iron
There are two forms of iron in food: heme and non-heme. Heme iron sources are easier to absorb. Heme Iron is found in chicken, beef, egg yolks, pork, shellfish, as well as other animal meats and seafood.
Non-heme iron is found in plant foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, and dark green leafy vegetables. This form of iron is not as easily absorbed because plant foods contain substances such as tannins and phytic acids, which can reduce the absorption of iron. Vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk of iron deficiencies because they do not consume animal-based products.
Calcium blocks the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. Examples of foods that are high in calcium are milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified milk substitutes, and nuts. To increase the absorption of iron from foods do not serve foods high in calcium at the same time as high iron foods.
Did You Know?
Children who drink milk are at an increased risk of iron deficiency. Doctors do not recommend that cow’s milk be given to children under 12 months of age because calcium blocks iron absorption.
Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron. Include high vitamin C foods in your child’s diet, such as bell peppers, broccoli, strawberries, or citrus fruits with meals.
Iron Mineral Supplements
Despite a parent’s best efforts, diet alone may not improve iron levels once they have become depleted. If your child is diagnosed with iron deficiency or iron-deficiency anemia, supplementation is necessary to raise iron levels.
Supplementing with iron is especially important for picky eaters or kids who avoid meats.
While heme iron is the easiest to absorb from food, it is difficult to use heme iron in supplement form as it is sourced from animal blood.
The majority of iron supplements on the market have inferior forms of iron that are not well absorbed and cause side effects such as constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and intestinal pain.
When iron supplements come in contact with teeth, they can cause discoloration or graying of the teeth. None of these side effects occur with KidStar® BioFe® Iron.
KidStar® BioFe® Iron
KidStar® BioFe® is gentle and will not upset sensitive stomachs or stain teeth like common iron supplements.
The iron in BioFe® is micronized and microencapsulated, protecting you from the side effects of iron, like constipation, black stools, tummy upset, and grey teeth. Microencapsulation also allows BioFe® iron to be taken at the same time as foods and nutrients containing calcium.
KidStar® BioFe® Iron is available in a tasty liquid, unflavoured liquid drops and a tiny chewable tablet. Like all KidStar® nutrients, our iron supplements do not contain sugar, artificial colours, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavours, soy, gluten and GMOs.
Iron deficiency anemia takes time to develop and it can often time to improve iron stores. It can take months to increase iron levels to optimal range, which is why it is important to both supplement with an iron supplement and make dietary changes.
Daily Iron Requirements
To prevent iron deficiency, iron supplement should provide the following dose:
- Children 7 months to 13 years – 10 mg elemental iron daily
- Girls 14 to 18 years – 15 mg elemental iron daily
- Boys 14 to 18 years – 10 mg elemental iron daily
For children diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia, consult a health care practitioner about a therapeutic dose to treat iron deficiency.
Quick Tips to Increase Iron
- Serve foods rich in vitamin C (fruits and vegetables) at the same time as foods containing iron
- Increase heme-iron containing foods such as organic egg yolks, organic chicken livers, grass-fed beef
- Vegetarians should soak legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds to help remove phytic acid, which hinders iron absorption
- Use cast iron pans for cooking to increase iron; they impart iron into the food when cooking
- Cook with the Lucky Iron Fish Cooking Tool
- Avoid high calcium foods when consuming high iron foods
- Avoid dairy products if deficient in iron
- Avoid caffeine-containing foods when eating iron (chocolate, tea, sodas)
- Supplement with BioFe® iron to help prevent iron deficiency and iron deficiency anemia.
Caitlyn Vanderhaeghe, B.A., B.Ed., is a health advocate, licensed teacher, and CEO of KidStar Nutrients. Caitlyn’s experience spans more than a decade of supply chain and ingredients sourcing in the natural products industry. As a mother of three daughters, Caitlyn’s mission is to help educate parents about kids’ nutrition and provide clean nutrients for kids and families.
Find iron products here
Gentle, unflavoured, pure iron drops in an MCT base.
BioFe® Pure Iron Drops
Iron for the Family Bundle
Iron for the Family Bundle
Gentle, delicious, iron liquid formula for toddlers, children, and older.
BioFe+® Iron Liquid