What is anemia for babies? (What Parents Should Know)

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Looking for more information about anemia and babies?

You've come to the right place! 🙂

In this edition of Baby Schooling, you'll learn:

  • What causes anemia in babies?
  • Early signs and symptoms of baby anemia
  • Is anemia for babies dangerous?
  • How can you prevent your baby from getting anemia?
  • Other types of anemia to be aware of
  • And much much more!
baby anemia get rid of

We all try our very best to keep our tiny tots happy and healthy. While we generally do a great job and our efforts are rewarded with healthy growth and gummy grins, there are certain conditions that babies are especially prone to developing - even with the best care.

Some may be harder to spot than others and knowing which signs and symptoms to look out for is essential. Anemia is one of those conditions that can be difficult to spot in babies if you don’t know what to look for.

Read on to find out more about baby anemia and the best ways to prevent and treat it.​

What is Anemia?

The most common type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. Anyone following a poor, low iron diet is at risk of becoming anemic.

Our bodies (and our babies bodies, too) need red blood cells to transport oxygen to tissues throughout our system. We need sufficient levels of iron to keep the production of these red blood cells at an optimal level.

When we don't have enough iron, our bodies are unable to make enough healthy red blood cells to keep up with our body's daily demands and as a result, our health starts to suffer.

Anemia in babies

At birth, newborns usually have a hemoglobin level that's a few points higher than that of the average adult’s. Hemoglobin is an important oxygen-carrying component of red blood cells. When a newborn baby has too few red blood cells or lowered hemoglobin levels, they are considered anemic.

Even babies who have enough red blood cells and normal hemoglobin levels at birth can develop anemia later on and it's important to make sure that your baby gets enough iron through milk feeds and solids, too.

What Causes Anemia in Babies?

Babies are usually born with sufficient iron stores, but due to their rapid growth, these are quickly depleted when there is not enough iron present in their diets. During periods of increased demand, it is important to ensure that your baby receives sufficient levels of iron in their diet.

Anemia in premature babies

Babies born prematurely are especially prone to anemia. This is due to a number of reasons, including a drop in an important hormone (erythropoietin or EPO) following birth. This hormone is responsible for initiating red blood cell production.

Premature babies will often receive blood transfusions to treat anemia and in some cases they will need to be given EPO hormone injections to help stimulate red blood cell production.

anemia develops after breast milk

When are babies most likely to develop anemia?

If your baby is not getting enough iron through their diet, they may develop anemia at any stage.

The most common age during which most healthy babies are likely to experience a decline in iron levels is between 9-24 months. This is because of the increasing demands on your baby's iron stores around this age.

Between 9-24 months babies are developing at a rapid rate and most babies are a lot more mobile by now, too. It's extremely important that they receive all the nutrients they need to support healthy growth.

What Are The Signs and Symptoms of Baby Anemia?

Mild cases of anemia often don't have any symptoms. The lower your baby's healthy red blood cell count falls, the more pronounced the symptoms will be. If you've noticed any of the following symptoms it's time to consult a healthcare provider to assess your baby's iron levels.

  • Pale, ashen skin
  • Weak and tired
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unusual food cravings
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Sore or swollen tongue
  • Blue tinged or pale whites of eyes
  • Brittle nails that break easily 

The below videos really break down what you need to know about identifying anemia in your child before it happens.

Although the below video is a little more "advanced" and is made to teach doctors, we thought it was a nice addition and really breaks down anemia in babies. Pay special attention at around the 2 minute mark.

Is Baby Anemia Dangerous?

While anemia can adversely affect your baby's growth and overall development, thankfully, it's also easily treated in most cases.

Keeping an eye out for symptoms and always being mindful of your baby's diet are important factors in reducing the risks associated with anemia in babies and children.

How Can You Prevent Your Baby From Getting Anemia?

Breastfeeding can help

Up until the age of around 6 months, breastfeeding your baby may help to prevent anemia. This is because iron (and other nutrients) found in breastmilk is easily absorbed by babies. Adding iron fortified cereal or iron vitamin drops to your breastfed baby's diet is recommended between 4-6 months, when the levels of iron found in breast milk may no longer be sufficient for your baby's growing needs.

An iron fortified formula

Formula fed babies are more likely to develop anemia. When choosing formula for your baby, always make sure it's iron fortified. If you're giving your baby iron fortified there's no need to add iron vitamin drops to their diet.

Cow’s milk has insufficient levels of iron for babies and is not an acceptable substitute for breastmilk or iron fortified formula. If your baby is over 12 months old and has started drinking cow’s milk, make sure they are still getting enough iron rich foods throughout the day. Calcium naturally found in cow’s milk has also been shown to reduce the bioavailability of iron (see below).

Best foods for preventing iron deficiency anemia in babies and toddlers

When you know what your options are, adding delicious, iron rich foods to your baby's diet is easy.

Feeding your baby different types of iron rich foods

The iron found in foods consist of two groups: heme and non-heme.

Heme iron is found in meat and seafood and is the most bioavailable (easily absorbed) type of dietary iron.

Non-heme iron food options are usually plant and fortified grain based and should be combined with heme iron rich foods or vitamin C to boost absorption.

Common foods that are high in iron and help combat anemia are:

Heme

These foods are high in readily available iron as well as heme iron:

  • Beef
  • Beef liver
  • Chicken
  • Fish
sources of iron for babies in food

Non-heme

These foods contain non-heme iron and are most helpful when combined with heme iron sources and vitamin C:

  • Dark green vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli)
  • Beans
  • Iron fortified cereals and breads

Iron absorption boosters & inhibitors

Animal protein, copper and vitamin C are all helpful in aiding the absorption of iron and can greatly increase the benefits of iron found in non-heme foods sources.

Eggs, coffee, tea, calcium, zinc, vegetable protein, phytic acid and oxalic acid can all reduce how effective non-heme iron sources are, so be careful.

Being mindful of these nutrient interactions can mean the difference between success and failure when treating mild anemia through dietary iron sources.

A Bite Sized Baby Lesson!

When giving your baby iron rich foods it's a good idea to give them water rather than milk to accompany meals. Calcium (found in cow’s milk) has been shown to reduce iron absorption and is one of the only iron inhibitors that may interfere with both heme and non-heme iron absorption. This doesn’t mean you should cut dairy (an important source of calcium) from their diets completely. Simply offer foods containing cow’s milk (cheese, yogurt, etc) as a snack between meals, rather than with them.

What Are Other Types of Anemia Babies Can Get?

While iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia in babies, it's certainly not the only one. Here are some other types of anemia to be mindful of - for both you and your baby:

Folic acid deficiency anemia

This type of anemia may be caused either by insufficient dietary folic acid sources or by inadequate absorption thereof.

Vitamin B12 deficiency anemia

Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in the production of healthy red blood cells. This type of anemia generally only affects children over the age of 4.

Vitamin C deficiency anemia

Vitamin C deficiency anemia causes the bone marrow to produce usually small red blood cells. This one is rare and is developed over an extended period of time.

Hemolytic anemia

Here, red blood cells are broken down faster than the bone marrow is able to replace them. It is a serious condition and may be present at birth or develop later in life.

Thalassemia

This type of anemia is inherited and is a form of hemolytic anemia. Common features are small, fragile red blood cells with low hemoglobin levels.

Sickle cell anemia

Hereditary, chronic and incurable, red blood cells associated with this type of anemia are fragile and crescent shaped (normal red blood cells are oval shaped). In addition to inadequate hemoglobin, their abnormal shape makes it harder for cells to pass through narrow blood vessels.

Aplastic anemia

A serious condition in which there is an inefficient production of red and blood cells as well as platelets (necessary for coagulation).

Anemia of chronic disease

Cancer, kidney and liver disease are all associated with anemia.

To find out more about the different types of anemia, go here.

A healthy diet has many benefits and even more so when implemented early in life.

In today's society, convenience is king and much too often, fast foods  devoid of nutrients and packed with calories are chosen over balanced, home cooked meals.

Taking the time to ensure your baby gets the proper nutrition now will help develop good eating habits and benefit all aspects of their lives for years to come. Can you afford not to?

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