Preventing Iron-Deficiency Anemia During Infancy
Iron-deficiency anemia during infancy is a common problem in North America. Anemia is characterized by a low level of red blood cells. The most common cause of anemia is an inadequate amount iron in the diet. A child with anemia may be tired or pale looking, may be irritable, or may not have any obvious signs at all. Importantly, some recent studies have shown that anemia during the first few sensitive months of life can lead to long-term delays in mental and physical development. So preventing anemia during the first year is very important.
Premature babies are particularly high at risk, although anemia can also occur in full-term babies if they aren't receiving enough iron in their diet. Full-term babies are usually born with enough iron stores in their body to last them for the first months of life. Breastmilk provides additional iron in an easily absorbed form. If infant formula is being used, it's very important that it be iron-fortified. Parents frequently ask whether iron-fortified formulas will cause their babies to be constipated. While many children are constipated at times, research has shown that iron in formula is not the cause.
Cow's milk should not be given until the baby is at least 9 to 12 months old, as it is a poor source of iron. Furthermore, if it's introduced too early into a baby's diet, cow's milk can cause intestinal bleeding, which increases iron loss and can lead to anemia.
By the age of 4 to 6 months, a baby's iron reserves have diminished, and neither breastmilk nor formula can provide enough iron to meet the baby's growing needs. At this point, iron-fortified cereals should be introduced into the baby's diet to provide additional iron and other nutrients.
Though an iron-rich diet is adequate for most healthy babies, an iron supplement may be prescribed if iron-deficiency anemia is diagnosed. Iron supplements are reserved strictly for children diagnosed with anemia - they are not appropriate, and may even be harmful, for other children. Iron-deficiency anemia can usually be prevented simply by ensuring that there is sufficient iron in the baby's diet.