Chubby Toddlers Don't Get Enough Iron

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By Christina Elston

If you've got a pudgy toddler - especially one who's still on the bottle - your child might not be getting enough iron. And that could mean mental and behavioral delays.

A study reported in the September issue of the journal Pediatrics found that 20 percent of obese toddlers have iron deficiency, compared with just 7 percent of their slimmer peers. Researchers also found that toddlers who are still drinking milk and juice from a bottle, rather than being weaned onto an iron-rich diet, are most at risk.

The earlier an iron deficiency is detected, the easier it is to reverse, according to Jane Brotanek, M.D., co-author of the study. But detecting it might not be so easy.

Iron deficiency in children does not generally have specific signs or symptoms, says Brotanek, a pediatrics professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. That's because the body's iron supply is depleted slowly over time, she says. When iron deficiency becomes serious enough to restrict the production of red blood cells or to cause anemia, adverse neurologic effects could have already occurred, she says.

Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • Fatigue and weakness

  • Pallor

  • Irritability

  • Dizziness/feeling lightheaded

  • Pica (the urge to eat non-food substances, such as dirt or crayons)

Most infants and toddlers don't reach this level, but even those with simple iron deficiency are in danger of deficits in mental and motor function. Brotanek cites one study that revealed lower standardized math scores among iron-deficient school-age children; while another study showed that giving iron supplements to iron-deficient infants significantly improved their motor and cognitive development.

"Studies also document that children with chronic iron deficiency in infancy can suffer mental and motor function deficits that persist for more than 10 years," she says.

While supplements are used to treat iron deficiency in children, they aren't recommended to prevent it. To keep your children's iron levels in balance, make iron-fortified whole grains (cereals, breads, rice, pasta), leafy green vegetables, red meats, eggs, beans and dried fruit part of their diet. "It is a good idea to include at least one of these iron-rich foods in each of your toddler's daily meals," Brotanek advises.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that parents introduce iron-fortified cereal or meats to babies between four and six months of age, and avoid giving young children too much milk, which can spoil a child's appetite for foods with greater iron content. "With a healthy diet and sufficient amounts of iron-rich foods," says Brotanek, "toddlers should not need iron supplements."

Christina Elston is a senior editor and health writer for Dominion Parenting Media.

Posted October 2007

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