Could Iron Supplements Prevent Behavioural Problems in Kids?

If you’re baby is born underweight, giving him or her iron supplements may reduce the risk of behavioural problems later in life. This is according to a new Swedish study, published in the journal Paediatrics, which has found that low-birth-weight babies who did not receive iron supplements were 4.5 times more likely to show signs of behavioural problems at the age of three compared with low-birth-weight babies who did receive iron supplements during early infancy.


When babies have a low birth weight – meaning that they weigh less than 5.5 pounds or 2,500 grams – they are at a higher risk of developing behavioural problems as well as iron deficiency, albeit this condition has itself been linked to behavioural problems. Therefore, the results of the study suggest that you may be able to partially prevent your child’s risk of behavioural problems by giving them iron supplements, in a kind of two-birds-one-stone situation. Dr. David Mendez, a neonatologist at Miami Children’s Hospital, who was not involved in the study, explains that the findings support the current recommendation that you should provide iron supplements to low-birth-weight babies starting at one month of age.


The American Academy of Paediatrics states that healthy babies should receive iron supplements starting at four months of age if they are breastfed, although babies who are exclusively formula fed will receive enough iron this way. However, because babies who are born with a low birth weight grow quite rapidly, and may not have received enough iron from mothers during pregnancy to last them the duration of their first few months of life, they may need to start having supplements at an earlier age. However, as most of the babies in the study were breastfed, Mendez comments that the study needs to be replicated in different populations to confirm the effect seen on behaviour problems.


Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Centre of New York, notes, ‘In some ways [the findings are] not surprising because we know iron is an important micronutrient in the diet of very young children.’ Animal studies, for example, have shown that iron is an essential nutrient in the development of the brain. Still, Adesman asserts that the behaviour assessment used in the study could not diagnose behavioural problems by itself, so additional evaluations are needed. He adds that the results would also have been stronger if teacher assessments had been included.


The researchers themselves caution that the study was too small to rule out the possibility that iron provided by exclusive formula feeding could have affected their results. Nonetheless, many of the babies were at least partially breastfed for up to six months. However, Mendez points out another reason the study needs to be replicated; iron has a bad taste. It’s often hard to get babies to take iron supplements every day, and this is reflected in the study results. 23% of children in the study had poor compliance, meaning that less than 70% of the supplement doses were given.


However, while it is recommended to give iron supplements to low-birth-weight infants, the long-term impact this has on their wellness has not been rigorously studied. More over, studies suggest that too much iron may linked to health risks, such as impaired cognitive development. Plus, researchers have barely even touched upon the specific risks and benefits of iron supplements for babies who are marginally low birth weight (between 4.4 to 5.5 pounds) so it’s important to tread with caution. As your baby’s wellbeing could be at risk from too much iron, it’s important to speak to your child’s doctor about iron supplementation before you proceed.

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