Anaemia is when you don’t have enough red blood cells or when the blood cells don’t have enough haemoglobin.
You need red blood cells and haemoglobin to carry oxygen around your body. If you don’t have enough red blood cells or haemoglobin, your body doesn’t get the oxygen it needs and you can feel tired and irritable.
The most common type of anaemia in children is iron-deficiency anaemia. Iron-deficiency anaemia happens because of a lack of iron, which your body needs to make haemoglobin.
Iron deficiency in babies
This can happen if babies are exclusively breastfed beyond 6 months of age or they don’t get enough iron-rich foods when they start eating solids.
Iron deficiency anaemia can also be an issue for babies:
Iron deficiency in older children and teenagers
Iron deficiency can also be caused by blood loss. This means that adolescent children who have frequent, long or very heavy periods can be at risk of iron-deficiency anaemia.
Other types of anaemia
If your child isn’t getting enough vitamin B12 or folate from their diet, your child might get vitamin-deficiency anaemia.
Another type of anaemia is haemolytic anaemia. This is when the body destroys too many red blood cells. It sometimes happens because of things like an infection or some medicines. Sometimes it’s caused by inherited conditions – for example, sickle cell anaemia or thalassemia.
Symptoms of anaemia include:
Sometimes children might have other symptoms, including:
Does your child need to see a doctor about anaemia symptoms?
Yes. You should take your child to the GP if your child:
Tests for anaemia
If your GP thinks your child might have anaemia, they’ll usually order blood tests to work out what’s causing it. Often, children have blood tests for other conditions and anaemia shows up on the test results.
Sometimes your GP might try diet changes or supplements first to see whether the symptoms resolve. This might be a good option if your child doesn’t like blood tests.
Some children might be referred to a paediatrician or a haematologist for further tests.
Treatment for anaemia
Anaemia treatment depends on the cause.
Changes to diet for iron-deficiency anaemia
Red meat is the best source of iron. For children and teenagers who eat vegetarian diets, other good sources of iron include:
Iron supplements for iron-deficiency anaemia
Iron supplements might stain your child’s teeth, so it’s a good idea for them to brush straight after taking their supplement. Iron supplements can also turn your child’s poo black or grey and might cause constipation or stomach upsets. Talk to your doctor about how to manage these side effects.
Very rarely, your child might need an infusion or injection of iron.
Children who have started having periods might need iron supplements around the time of their periods. If your child has very heavy periods, your doctor might also recommend treatments to reduce bleeding.
Other causes of anaemia
You should store all iron supplements in a locked cupboard away from children. Iron overdose in a child can be fatal.
You can introduce pasteurised, unflavoured, full-fat cow’s milk to your baby’s diet after 12 months of age. But try to limit the amount of cow’s milk your child drinks to no more than 500 ml a day. Using a cup instead of a bottle can help to reduce the amount of cow’s milk your child drinks.
Children and teenagers
Your child should avoid tea, and check with your health professional about giving your child herbal teas. Keep limiting cow’s milk to no more than 500 ml a day.
You can read more about choosing good food for children and teenagers in these articles:
You can increase iron absorption from food by eating vitamin C-rich foods at the same time as iron-rich foods. Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits, strawberries and kiwi fruit.
ABOUT CAUSES DIAGNOSIS TREATMENT NEXT STEPS
Anemia is a common health problem in children. The most common cause of anemia is not getting enough iron. A child who is anemic does not have enough red blood cells or enough hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that lets red blood cells carry oxygen to other cells in the body. Iron is needed to form hemoglobin.
Iron-deficiency anemia can be caused by:
These are the most common symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia:
In most cases, anemia is diagnosed with simple blood tests. Routine anemia screening is done because anemia is common in children and they often have no symptoms.
Most anemia in children is diagnosed with these blood tests:
Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.
To prevent iron-deficiency anemia, the AAP says:
Treating iron-deficiency anemia includes:
Iron-deficiency anemia may cause delayed growth and development.
You can often prevent iron-deficiency anemia through screening and taking iron supplements.
Call your child's healthcare provider if your infant is not nursing well. Or if your toddler or child has any of the signs of iron-deficiency anemia.
Key points about iron-deficiency anemia in children
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider: