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Iron Supplements Reduce Cognitive and Behavioral Problems in Small Babies

  • Jessica Berman

Underweight babies born deficient in iron are at risk of developing cognitive and behavioral problems, according to experts. Now, researchers have discovered that supplementing those babies' diets with iron prevents developmental problems in more than one-third of the children.

Magnus Domellof, head of pediatrics at Umea University in Sweden, says low birth-weight babies, weighing from 2,000 to 2,500 grams, look normal, but about 30 percent are iron-deficient at six months, and 10 percent develop a condition called iron-deficient anemia.

As these children get older, Domellof says iron deficiency can lead to behavioral problems, including attention problems, anxiety and depression, compared to babies treated with iron supplements.

Domellof’s team studied a group of 285 newborns, and gave the borderline low-weight babies iron drops daily for six months. Another group of 90 infants in a placebo group in the study received drops of sugar water that contained no iron.

When researchers followed up with the children three years later, they found only 3 percent of the subjects in the treated group displayed behavioral and cognitive problems, compared to 13 percent among those in the untreated placebo group. Iron deficiency did not appear to affect the children’s IQ scores.

Although it was a small study, Domellof says his research is the first to show a direct link between iron deficiency and development-related attention and emotional problems in low birth-weight babies. Domellof says these babies are typically ignored because they look relatively normal at birth.

“They are about 5 percent of all infants in the U.S. They are quite often neglected in studies, even though the few studies that have been performed actually show that these are at increased risk for behavioral problems, school problems, like that,” Domellof said.

Domellof notes that even if a breast-feeding mother is taking iron supplements, that iron does not transfer to her child through her breast milk. Iron-deficient children must take iron supplements directly with their food.

Domellof says he intends to revisit the children in his study in a few years to look at their IQ scores.

“Actually what we are doing is following up these children at seven years of age to see if we can find any subtle differences in intelligence,” Domellof said.

According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency -- a leading cause of anemia -- is the most common micronutrient disorder in both developing and developed countries. An estimated two billion people suffer from anemia, and 40 percent of preschool-children are believed to be anemic, while low iron reserves contribute to one-fifth of maternal deaths.

The article on the role iron supplements can play in preventing development problems in small babies is published in the journal Pediatrics.