Low Iron in Toddlers

Low iron levels in toddlers can result in anemia, a condition often caused by a lack of iron-rich foods in the diet. Rapid growth during the toddler years can make your child more likely to develop iron-deficiency anemia 2. If untreated, iron-deficiency anemia can lead to long-term problems affecting your child’s motor skills or mental development 2.


Your child’s body uses iron to produce hemoglobin, a protein present in red blood cells. The red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. A lack of hemoglobin means that the body does not receive adequate amounts of oxygen. Iron-deficiency anemia occurs gradually and begins with iron depletion, a condition that occurs when iron in the red blood cells is at normal levels, but the overall level of iron in the body is reduced 2. If the condition continues, iron in the red blood cells also begins to decrease.


You may notice that your child’s skin looks pale and that the insides of his eyelids and the nail beds on his fingers and toes are a lighter pink than usual. Your child may have less of an appetite and may even eat strange things such as dirt, chalk or ice. This behavior, called “pica,” is not harmful unless your child eats toxic substances, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics 1. In severe cases, your child may seem to be out-of-breath when not participating in strenuous exercise and may experience swelling in his hands or feet.


Iron-deficiency anemia can occur if your toddler does not get enough iron in his diet by eating iron-rich foods, such as:

  • beef
  • chicken
  • tuna
  • peas
  • string beans
  • strawberries
  • eggs 2

It may also occur if she drinks high amounts of cow’s milk or regularly drank cow’s milk before she was 12 months old. Cow’s milk does not contain sufficient levels of iron needed for growth. KidsHealth.org reports that drinking cow’s milk decreases the absorption of iron and can irritate the intestinal lining, causing small amounts of bleeding. Low iron levels and the resulting blood loss can cause a deficiency and eventual anemia 2. Iron-deficiency anemia can also occur during a period of rapid growth 2. Even if your child eats iron-rich foods, she may not be able to ingest enough iron to keep up with a growth spurt.


While increasing intake of iron-rich foods may be helpful if your toddler has anemia, it won’t be enough to increase her iron to normal levels. If a blood test reveals that your child has anemia, your doctor may prescribe an iron supplement. Your child should only take iron if his doctor recommends them because taking these supplements unnecessarily can cause iron poisoning, a condition that results in abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and vomiting. Your doctor will retest your child’s iron level during treatment with supplements to determine when she can stop taking the supplements.