Iron Supplements May Help Ward Off Behavioral Problems in Small Infants

Health care professionals have cautioned parents on the use of iron supplements for infants, saying that too much iron can stunt growth. Previous studies have supported the use of these supplements in premature or very low birth-weight babies because they are not able to store up as much iron as infants born at term, but until now, there haven’t been any studies conducted on babies falling just below normal weight or term. For this reason, researchers from Sweden took a look specifically at this group of babies. Their study suggests that infants who are born slightly premature or just below a normal birth weight may actually need these supplements to help ward off behavioral problems later on in life.

“The issue with these marginally low birth-weight infants is, people really haven’t paid a lot of attention to them, but the evidence is accumulating that they are at risk for behavioral problems and less than ideal cognitive function,” Dr. Betsy Lozoff, who studies the effects of iron deficiency on infants at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor but was not involved in the Swedish study, told Reuters Health.

The study, led by Dr. Staffan Berglund, followed 285 infants born between 4 lbs, 7 oz and 5 lbs, 8 oz. At six weeks of age, researchers randomly assigned infants either one or two milligrams of iron drops per kilogram of body weight or iron-free placebo drops. Drops were prescribed until the children reached their six-month birthday.

When the children reached three and a half, the team brought all of the children in for IQ tests and surveyed parents on behavioral issues. Researchers then compared the placebo and iron drop groups to another 95 children born at normal birth weight.

According to the results, no IQ differences were found in cognitive development among the three groups. However, parents with slightly low birth weight children who had been given placebos were found to have more behavioral problems (problems managing emotional reactions, sleep and attention problems, anxiety and depression) than infants given iron drops and those born at normal weight. More specifically, nearly 13 percent of the infants given placebos scored above the cutoff for clinical behavioral problems while only 3 percent of the infants given iron drops and kids from normal weight had met the cutoff criteria.

“I think this further solidifies the evidence that it’s a very good idea to give these [marginally low birth weight] children iron supplements,” Dr. Magnus Domellof from Umea University, who worked on the study, told Reuters Health.

Domellof also noted that none of the children given iron drops had stomach problems or delayed growth. For this reason, he says he wouldn’t be afraid of recommending the drops to any child born below 5 lbs, 8 oz.

Lozoff also says that routine supplements couldn’t hurt, especially for infants born slightly below birth weight for who no recommendations for supplementation exists. “This would suggest that it should be just a routine supplementation, and it can be at a low level of iron,” she said.

And Lozoff isn’t the only one who feels that way. “Here’s where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Dr. Michael Georgieff, a child development researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who had reviewed the study as part of the Berglund’s dissertation committee, told Reuters Health.


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About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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