Anemia is a condition in which the amount of red blood cells in the body is decreased below normal for your child's age. It can make your child appear pale in color and feel cranky, tired, or weak. Though these symptoms may worry you, anemia is generally easy to treat, especially when it is detected early. In addition, parents need to be aware of the steps to take to prevent this condition.
Because rapid growth is a potential cause of the condition, the first year of life and adolescence are two age groups where infants and children are especially prone to anemia.
What is anemia?
Anemia means there are not enough red blood cells in the body. Red blood cells are filled with hemoglobin, a special pigmented protein that makes it possible to carry and deliver oxygen to other cells in the body. The cells in your child's muscles and organs need oxygen to survive, and decreased numbers of red blood cells can place stress on the body.
Your child may become anemic if his or her body:
- Does not produce enough red blood cells. This can happen if she does not have enough iron or other nutrients in her diet (e.g. iron-deficiency anemia).
- Destroys too many red blood cells. This type of anemia usually happens when a child has an underlying illness or has inherited a red blood cell disorder (e.g. sickle-cell anemia).
- Loses red blood cells through bleeding. This can either be obvious blood loss, such as heavy menstrual bleeding, or long-term low-grade blood loss, perhaps in the stool.
What are the common signs and symptoms of anemia?
- Pale, gray, or "ashy" skin (also, the lining of the eyelids and the nail beds may look less pink than normal)
- Mild weakness
- Tiring easily
- Children experiencing red blood cell destruction may become jaundiced (yellowing of the skin or eyes)
Children with severe anemia may have additional signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heart rate
- Swollen hands and feet
Children with anemia caused by very low levels of iron in their blood may also eat strange things such as ice, dirt, clay, and cornstarch. This behavior is called "pica" (pronounced pie-kuh). It is not harmful unless your child eats something toxic, such as lead paint chips. Usually the pica stops after the anemia is treated and as the child grows older.
If your child shows any of these signs or symptoms, please see your pediatrician. Even a low level of anemia can affect your child's energy, focus, and ability to learn. Chronic iron deficiency anemia can result in long term, permanent impairment of development. In most cases, a simple blood count can diagnose anemia.
How can I prevent my child from becoming anemic?
Iron-deficiency anemia and other nutritional anemias can be prevented by ensuring that your child eats a well-balanced diet. Talk to your doctor about any specific dietary restrictions in your household as your child may require a nutritional supplementation to prevent anemia.
To prevent nutritional anemias:
- Do not give your baby cow's milk until he or she is over 12 months old. Giving cow's milk before your child is ready may cause blood loss in his or her stool and can also decrease the amount of iron absorbed in the gut.
- If you are breastfeeding: Your baby will have an adequate supply of iron until at least 4 months of age. After that time, if your child continues to be breastfed and has begun taking solid food, give him foods with added iron. Talk to your pediatrician about foods best suited for this purpose.
- If you formula-feed your baby: Give your baby formula with added iron. Low-iron formula can result in iron-deficiency anemia. See Choosing a Formula.
- Avoid giving your older children more than 2 cups a day of whole cow's milk. Milk is low in iron and can make children feel full, which can decrease the amount of other iron rich foods they eat.
- Feed older children a well-balanced diet with foods that contain iron. Many grains and cereals have added iron (check labels to be sure). Other good sources of iron include red meat, egg yolks, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, molasses, and raisins. See Pump Up the Diet with Iron.
- Encourage the whole family to drink citrus juice or eat other foods high in Vitamin C to increase the body's absorption of iron. Although green vegetables contain lots of iron, the iron from many vegetables comes in a form that is difficult for your body to absorb, but Vitamin C can help!
To prevent anemia in children with inherited red blood cell disorders:
Your pediatrician will likely refer you to a pediatric hematologist to provide you with supportive care and education on your child's specific condition.
If your child starts to show any signs or symptoms of anemia, be sure to tell your pediatrician. Also, find out if anyone in your family has a history of anemia or problems with easy bleeding. With proper treatment, your child's anemia should improve quickly.