Iron Deficiency Anemia In Children: A Parent’s Guide

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

Infants and young children are at an increased risk for iron deficiency anemia. Although it is a serious condition, iron deficiency anemia is generally easy to treat, especially when it is detected early on. In addition, parents need to be aware of the steps they should be taking to prevent this condition.


Anemia is a condition in which the body lacks sufficient amounts of healthy red blood cells. These are the cells which are responsible for bringing oxygen to various tissues, so it’s critical that there be enough of them in the body.

Of all the various types of anemia, iron deficiency anemia is the most common. This condition occurs when the decrease in the number of red blood cells is caused by a lack of iron. Infants and children have an increased risk for iron deficiency anemia.


Children or infants who are suffering from iron deficiency anemia may suffer from any number of the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased appetite
  • Unusual food cravings
  • Sore tongue
  • Brittle nails
  • Bloody stools
  • Pale skin color
  • Blue-tinged or very pale whites of the eyes

It’s important to note that in mild cases of iron deficiency anemia, none of the above symptoms may be present. That’s why it’s important for parents to take steps to prevent this condition even when their child shows no sign of it.

Causes And Risk Factors

Infants and children are at an increased risk for iron deficiency anemia due to the fact that they grow at such a rapid rate. This makes it difficult for their body to store enough iron and keep their red blood cell count up high enough to sustain their bodies. 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 iron deficiency anemia.

In addition to rapid growth, iron deficiency anemia can also be caused by a diet that is lacking in iron. Parents have to keep in mind that children and infants need extra iron in their diet to make up for their rapid growth. An iron-poor diet is actually the most common cause of iron deficiency anemia. Other than diet, long-term slow blood loss (such as bleeding in the digestive tract or menstruation) and the body not absorbing iron efficiently are two other possible causes for the condition.

There are several risk factors of iron deficiency anemia for children and infants. Those risk factors are:

  • Drinking cow’s milk instead of breast milk or an iron-fortified formula. This risk factor applies to infants younger than 12 months of age.
  • Drinking a lot of cow’s milk instead of eating iron-rich foods. Cow’s milk doesn’t contain much iron and actually makes it more difficult to absorb iron from foods. This risk factor applies mostly to young children.
  • Following a vegan or vegetarian diet without including enough iron-rich foods. (To learn about other 
  • Having special health care needs.


The best way to prevent iron deficiency anemia in infants is to give them breast milk or an iron-fortified formula for at least the first 12 months of their life. For toddlers and young children, parents should incorporate a variety of iron-rich foods into the child’s diet, such as:

  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanut butter
  • Turkey
  • Soybeans
  • Liver
  • Prune juice
  • Tuna
  • Spinach
  • Raisins
  • Oatmeal
  • Apricots
  • Leafy greens, such as kale

Screening may also be helpful in preventing (or detecting) the condition. Since babies who are 9 to 24 months of age are most commonly affected by iron deficiency anemia, screening normally takes place at some point during this phase to determine if the baby is getting enough iron. Babies who are born prematurely may need to be tested earlier.


Children and infants with iron deficiency anemia are typically treated with iron replacement. This involves taking iron supplements, limiting milk intake and eating lots of iron-rich foods. The supplements are often taken with a vitamin-C fortified liquid (such as orange juice) to aid in the absorption of iron. In most cases, the condition can be effectively treated this way within a month or two, but the iron supplements are still used for another 6 to 12 months to help rebuild the body’s iron storage.


Iron deficiency anemia is a condition for which children and infants are at a higher risk. It’s important to take steps to prevent this condition since it could lead to physical and mental problems, including learning difficulties. See your doctor right away if you think that your child may be suffering from iron deficiency anemia.


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