Has your baby been looking paler than usual? Does he seem lethargic, uncommunicative, or irritable? If so, then your baby may be suffering from a condition known as anemia. Anemia is a very common illness, affecting more than 3 million Americans every year. It is particularly common amongst infants and toddlers, and can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms; if left untreated, anemia can even cause permanent behavioral or developmental problems in young children. Luckily, anemia can usually be treated easily and successfully with the help of your health care provider.
What is Anemia?
Anemia is the name given to a condition in which the body lacks the appropriate number of red blood cells. Red blood cells are an important part of a body’s blood system, helping to transport oxygen to all vital organs and tissues. Red blood cells are what give your body the energy needed to complete necessary tasks. If you are anemic, your bloodstream does not have enough of these red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body. This means that your body has to work harder to carry oxygen throughout your body. As a result, you feel tired, irritable, and lethargic.
What Causes Anemia?
There are actually various different causes of anemia.
Nutritional deficiencies are one of the most common causes of anemia, particularly in babies and young children. There are four major kinds of nutritional anemia:
- Iron Deficiency Anemia: Iron deficiency anemia occurs when the body uses up all of its iron stores or when the body cannot absorb iron properly. Iron is essential to blood and bodily health. It is used to help manufacture hemoglobin, the red, sticky substance that helps to carry oxygen throughout the body. If your body does not get enough iron, it won't be able to create hemoglobin, and thus oxygen will not be delivered properly to all the cells in the body.
- Folic Acid Deficiency Anemia: Folic acid deficiency results when the body does not get enough folic acid to replenish its stores. Folic acid plays an important role in the metabolism of amino acids and the formation of healthy red blood cells. If you do not have enough folic acid, the body produces red blood cells that are too large and that have a shortened life span. This interferes with the transportation of oxygen in the bloodstream.
- Vitamin B12 Deficiency: A vitamin B12 deficiency can also trigger a form of nutritional anemia. Vitamin B12 anemia is usually the result of poor vitamin B12 absorption by the body, although it can also be the result of a poor diet. Without the proper amounts of vitamin B12, the body produces unusually large red blood cells. These red blood cells have a shorter life span and cannot carry oxygen efficiently throughout the body.
- Pernicious Anemia: Pernicious anemia is a severe form of vitamin B12 deficiency. It is caused by an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks proteins in the stomach that are necessary for the absorption of B12. Pernicious anemia can severely affect oxygen transfer throughout your bloodstream.
Bone Marrow Problems
Bone marrow helps your body to manufacture red blood cells. Viral illnesses or cancers, like leukemia, can decrease the number of red blood cells that your bone marrow can help to produce. This can lead to anemia.
Sometimes, your body’s hemoglobin can become abnormal due to disease. This can cause anemia by significantly shortening the lifespan of your red blood cells.
Abnormal Red Blood Cells
If you have red blood cells that are of abnormal shape, it can be hard for them to travel through your blood vessels. This makes it impossible to carry oxygen around your body. This type of anemia is often known as Sickle Cell anemia.
The Symptoms of Anemia
Anemia symptoms do not develop overnight. Instead, the disease typically takes months to develop. This means that symptoms can be difficult to detect. The most common symptoms of anemia include:
- pale skin tone
Which Infants are Most at Risk of Developing Anemia?
Though any baby or child can develop anemia, certain children are more likely to develop the disease. Risk factors include:
- Having a premature or low birth weight baby.
- Having uncontrolled diabetes during pregnancy.
- Giving your baby cow’s milk before her first birthday (cow’s milk interferes with the absorption of iron and may irritate her intestinal tract, causing internal bleeding).
- Babies who are fed with formula that is not iron fortified.
- Babies who are receiving no iron-fortified foods after they reach four to six months of age.
- Babies who are not receiving iron-fortified foods on a regular basis once they begin to eat.
Complications of Anemia
Unfortunately, infant anemia that is left untreated can become quite serious, causing a number of long-term side effects. In particular, anemia has been related to permanent mental and physical side effects, including loss of motor function and concentration.
Treating and Preventing Anemia
If you suspect that your baby has anemia, it is important that you get him screened for the disease. A simple blood test can help to measure the levels of both hemoglobin and hematocrit (percentage of red blood cells) in your child’s body. Other tests can also be completed in order to determine that iron deficiency, folic acid deficiency, or vitamin B12 deficiency is the cause of your baby’s anemia.
If iron-deficiency is causing your baby to suffer from symptoms of anemia, it is important that you ask your health care provider for treatment advice. Most children who are suffering from iron deficiency anemia require ongoing iron supplementation in order to build up their iron stores. The typical dosage of iron is 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. It usually takes between six and twelve months for babies to rebuild their iron stores.
If folic acid or vitamin B12 deficiencies are responsible for your baby's anemia, treatment generally includes supplementation and a more balanced diet. If your child is between the ages of 6 months and a year, you can introduce solid foods that contain high levels of folic acid and vitamin B12, such as fortified cereals, beans, spinach, broccoli, meats, and poultry.
It is important that every parent of an infant or toddler take steps to prevent nutritional anemia. Here are some preventative tips that you can follow:
- Do not give your baby any cow’s milk before his first birthday, as this can deplete iron stores. Instead, only give him iron-fortified formula or breast milk.
- When old enough to eat solids, be sure to provide your child with iron-fortified foods, such as cereals or pastas.
- Make sure that your child eats fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin C. Vitamin C helps the body to absorb iron.
- If your baby is born prematurely or at a low birth weight, ask your health care provider about iron supplements.