This month, the AAP published a clinical report representing the committee on nutrition, urging pediatricians and parents to work together to improve rates of iron deficiency in this country. The reason: iron deficiency is one of the more common problems among children but it frequently goes undetected. We can’t see it, smell it, or detect it easily on exam or with one simple blood study. Oddly enough, it’s complicated to determine an infant/child’s iron status.
New research finds that deficiency of iron, particularly at young ages (0-3 years)–when the brain is forming and growing rapidly–may have irreversible effects on cognitive and behavioral development. Although the majority of infants and children are not deficient in iron, between 5% to 15% of toddlers are deficient. There are no great studies (believe it or not) telling us exactly what percent of infants are truly deficient.
Don’t go nuts about this and don’t let this scare you. You only need to make changes now, not look back and worry. First of all, let me put this in perspective: iron deficiency used to be a bigger problem than it is now. Prior to the 1970’s (when iron was added to infant formula) rates of deficiency were around 30-40% of babies. Breast-fed infants are at higher risk (versus formula fed babes) of being iron deficient if there is delay in introducing solid foods. So when the pediatrician has mentioned waiting until 6 months for solids, we neglected to prioritize iron.
We care about iron deficiency because it can cause two major problems:
- Iron deficiency anemia (small, pale red blood cells)
- Slowed or depressed cognitive and behavioral development. The first 3 years of life are critical for brain development and there is new research that iron status, starting in infancy, is essential for later cognitive performance. Think of “cognitive performance” as seeing well, reasoning, remembering, and interacting with others. So this stuff matters.
My biggest hesitation when I read the report the first time was that we were sending yet another message to breast-feeding moms that their milk wasn’t enough (ie your baby may need a supplement of iron in addition to that vitamin D). Furthermore the recommendations are filled with testing, re-testing, and follow-up evaluations that may be confusing and scary for families. Yet after numerous conversations with other doctors who were initially skeptical, and about 4 personal reads of the report, I have come to the same conclusion as those with who I spoke: We need to protect infants from deficiency of iron and we need to do more comprehensive screening of those babies graduating into toddlerhood. So some facts and explanations: Read full post »