Low iron in children is more common than you might think. Many kids have low iron stores, or they may struggle to build their iron levels up.
Iron deficiency is something we see a lot here at Natural Super Kids – whether we spot it in their presenting symptoms, or it’s the primary reason that their parents seek our advice.
For many kids, boosting up iron levels is not as simple as taking a supplement. It’s important to address the underlying causes to see significant improvements.
Watch the video below or keep reading to learn more about correcting low iron in children.
The causes of low iron in children
There are many causes that can affect iron levels. But there are several that are more common in children.
Maternal iron deficiency
Low iron levels when pregnant is a common problem that can translate into babies having inadequate levels. If you are considering further pregnancies, you’ll want to make sure to optimise your iron levels before falling pregnant.
Premature babies or low birth weight
Both of these come with a higher risk of iron deficiency. If your baby is born premature or has a low birth weight, you’ll want to focus on boosting their levels.
Inadequate intake in food
A healthy baby is born with enough iron stores to last them for the first 6 months. After that, they need to consume iron-rich foods through the diet to maintain good levels.
Because so much growth and development occurs between 6-12 months, they can go through their iron stores quickly during this time. Low iron is often not picked up until later in life.
Excess cow’s milk consumption
This is one of the most common reasons for low iron in infants and toddlers.
Excess cow’s milk can affect iron levels by crowding out iron-rich foods in the diet. Casein and calcium can also inhibit the absorption of iron. In some cases, there can also be intestinal blood loss from excess consumption.
Picky eaters are at a higher risk of low iron levels. They are typically not keen on iron-rich foods such as meat, preferring nutrient-poor processed foods. This leads to a lower intake of iron.
Vegetarian or vegan diet
It can be hard for kids to get enough iron from plant foods alone. If your family is vegetarian or vegan, it’s a good idea to monitor iron levels and consider a high-quality supplement.
Gut disorders or symptoms
There are a number of gut issues that can affect how much iron is absorbed from food. These include Coeliac disease, infections, parasitic infections, general inflammation and IBS symptoms.
This is often the case for those who aren’t responding to diet changes and supplements.
For teenage girls, heavy periods are common during the first couple of years. This can lead to iron losses and cause deficiency.
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons that can lead to low iron in children. For many, it is a combination of factors that lead to iron deficiency.
The signs and symptoms of low iron in children
There are several signs and symptoms that may suggest your child’s iron levels are on the lower end. These include:
- Fatigue – this may be underlying, showing up as tiring easily or less stamina than other kids
- A pale complexion
- Frequent infections or slow recovery from infections
- Impaired learning, concentration and memory
- Behavioural issues such as irritability, short attention span and disruptive behaviour
- Sleep issues, particularly restless sleep or restless legs
- Feeling weak or dizzy
- Pica – eating non-food items such as paper, wood, glue or dirt on a regular basis
How can you check for low iron levels?
The best way to confirm iron levels is with a blood test. It’s not always necessary to test – working with a qualified practitioner can give you a good idea of whether iron deficiency is likely. But it is a good idea so that you can gauge their levels and monitor improvements.
When it comes to blood tests for iron, you want to make sure you request full iron studies. Full iron studies will include ferritin – stored iron – as well as their circulating iron levels. This will give a good overall picture of what is happening and whether supplements are warranted.
It is easy to induce iron overload when using supplements, so you don’t want to give them iron long-term as a supplement without monitoring their levels. Iron overload has similar symptoms to low iron, so it can be hard to identify without testing.
How can you boost low iron levels in children?
Iron via the diet
When it comes to iron, the diet is where we want to start. So how do we make sure they are getting enough iron?
Firstly, we need to know about the two different forms of iron – haeme and non-haeme iron.
Haeme iron is the form found in animal products. The absorption rate of haeme iron is around 20-30%.
Haeme iron is found in:
- Red meat such as beef, lamb, kangaroo and venison – mince is often a better option for kids
- Chicken liver – this is the best source of iron out there! The best way to get it into kids is with a pate.
Non-haeme iron is the form found in plant foods. Absorption of non-haeme iron is much lower – around 1-10%.
If your child is vegetarian or vegan, getting enough iron can be tough unless you’re careful to include iron-rich foods. A supplement can help to replenish low levels, then you can maintain it with the diet.
Non-haeme sources of iron include:
- Green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli
- Nuts – particularly almonds and cashews
- Fortified cereals – these may be useful if your child is not consuming animal products
There are different factors that can either enhance or inhibit the absorption of iron. We want to increase the factors that enhance and reduce or remove the factors that inhibit.
Some of the factors that can improve absorption include:
- Vitamin C – add in plenty of vitamin C rich fruit and veg such as oranges, tomatoes, capsicum, broccoli
- Beta-carotene – this is found in yellow and orange coloured fruit and vegetables
- Folate – found in green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes
- Probiotics – theses are particularly helpful if your child has gut symptoms or inflammation present
There are also several factors that can inhibit the absorption of iron:
- Calcium – calcium competes with iron for absorption. If your child is on iron supplements, make sure they’re not taking it with a calcium supplement or washing it down with a mouthful of milk!
- Tea and coffee – many teenagers have tea or coffee regularly. Unfortunately, the tannins in these drinks can inhibit iron absorption. It’s best to avoid consuming tea or coffee with meals, as they can inhibit iron absorption by up to 90%.
- Gut inflammation – if your child has any form of gut symptom, there’s a good chance that it is causing inflammation in the gut. This reduces the absorption of iron.
Does your child have tummy issues? Make sure you download our FREE Kids Gut Health Ebook here.
Iron supplements can be tricky for kids. They often aren’t able to swallow tablets or capsules. Many of the liquid options are full of sugar and additives, and often contain forms that are poorly absorbed.
The right form of iron can depend on the child’s specific case and needs. But we generally prefer using an iron chelate, as it doesn’t have the side effects of tummy aches and constipation.
Are you concerned that your child may have low iron levels?
It’s always a good idea to get professional support to determine and correct any nutrient deficiencies in children.
That’s why we offer online consultations to support you in a convenient way. To check out the details and book in, click here.