Just a week back, while holding a discussion on anaemia on one of the WhatsApp groups, one of the mothers was concerned about the relationship between anaemia and breastfeeding babies above 6 months and those consuming cow’s milk. This was based on observation of her own children as they grew up. This was indeed a good observation and a nice question raised.
According to UNICEF, one in two under-five children suffer from hidden hunger (micronutrient deficiency) and iron deficiency is the world’s commonest micronutrient deficiency affecting more than 2 billion people in the world, with the highest burden in African children.
This most widespread nutritional deficiency of iron deficiency is the primary cause of iron deficiency anaemia, which is haemoglobin levels of < 11g/dl. Almost half (47%) of under-five children are anaemic, which is mainly attributed to iron deficiency. Generally, iron is important for both growth and development of the infants. Ferropenic anaemia caused by severe iron deficiency in infancy is associated with impaired health and serious neurological impairment like mental, motor, social, emotional, neurophysiological, and neurocognitive dysfunction.
In general, infants born at term with adequate birth weight have sufficient iron stores for the first 4 to 6 months of life, the recommended period of exclusive breastfeeding by the World Health Organization. It’s important to note that breastfeeding in this period reduces infant mortality that is caused by common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia and it also hastens children’s recovery from illness.
After the age of 6 months, as the children grow with concomitant expansion of blood volume, the body iron stores are depleted while body iron demand is increased, thus, breast milk becomes insufficient for iron supply. Therefore, infants who are predominantly breastfed beyond age 6 months or are consuming mainly milk are potentially prone to have iron deficiency anaemia. Hence, the addition of sufficient complementary foods is essential for infant growth at this time. Make sure to choose foods that contain iron.
Iron found in foods comes in two forms: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is commonly found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body. Sources of heme iron include red meat (beef, pork, lamb, goat), seafood (fatty fish externa), poultry (chicken or turkey), and eggs.
Non-heme iron can be found in plants and iron-fortified products. This type of iron is less easily absorbed by the body and will require careful planning to get enough iron for your baby. Sources of non-heme iron include: iron-fortified infant cereals, beans and lentils and dark green leafy vegetables
Additionally, pairing non-heme iron sources with foods high in vitamin C can help your baby absorb the iron he or she needs to support development. Vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables include citrus fruits like oranges, berries, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cabbages, and dark green leafy vegetables.
Conclusively, we need to know that making sure your child is getting enough iron is important, however, some children may need more iron than others.
Lilian Nuwabaine Luyima is a BSc Nurse & MSN-Midwife & Women’s Health Specialist
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