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 Iron Deficiency in Children

​Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in children. It happens when a child’s body does not have enough iron to produce hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein found in the blood. The body needs iron to create oxygen so every cell in the body can function properly. Without it, children can have short attention spans, learning difficulties, headaches, weakness and irritability.

Iron deficiency anemia is caused by:

  • Insufficient amounts of iron-rich foods in the diet
  • Blood loss due from menstruation or intestinal tract condition
  • Rapid growth spurt
  • Poor absorption of iron by the body

When to see a doctor

Consult with your child’s primary physician if you notice any of the following symptoms or if
you have concerns about your child’s diet:

  • Blue tone to whites of eyes
  • Decreased appetite
  • Pale skin
  • Unusually tired or weak
  • Headaches
  • Unusual food cravings (Pica, when cravings are for non-food items like dirt or soap)


If iron deficiency anemia is suspected, your child’s physician will perform a physical examination and a blood test to diagnose the deficiency. Once confirmed, the physician may run a few more tests to find the cause of the deficiency, such as a fecal test to determine if there is any internal bleeding and additional blood tests to determine if the bone marrow is making enough red blood cells. If there is any internal bleeding, your child may be referred you to a pediatric gastroenterologist​ for an endoscopy to find out what is causing the internal bleeding.

Boys Town Pediatric Gastroenterology​ offers a capsule endoscopy which is a simple procedure where the patient swallows a large capsule. In this capsule is a very small camera that takes pictures of the intestines as the capsule makes its way through the tract. The PillCam can help diagnose iron deficiency anemia, suspected Crohn’s disease​, obscure GI bleeding, small bowel tumors and celiac disease.

Most iron deficiency anemia is attributed to a lack of iron in a child’s diet. The main reason for this is due to growth spurts that occur in infancy, childhood and adolescence. Once diagnosed, children generally recover in about two months on an iron-rich diet. It is important to follow up with your child’s physician to make sure the iron deficiency does not return.

Children ages 1 – 12 should consume 7-10 mg of iron every day. Adolescent boys need 11 mg and adolescent girls require 15 mg. Try to incorporate two iron-rich foods each day, such as:

  • Iron-fortified cereals
  • Eggs (yolk)
  • Shrimp, tuna or salmon
  • Broccoli, asparagus
  • Beans (kidney, pinto, black, lima)
  • Red meats
  • Chicken or Turkey
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Nuts

Healthy note:

Vitamin C helps with the absorption of Iron. Offer a glass of orange juice next time you sit down for a family supper.