Pumping Up Tiny Newborns' Iron

Iron supplements for underweight newborns reduces later behavior problems

December 10, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) The smallest newborns are often at risk for bigger health problems. Underweight babies are more likely to have behavioral issues later in life. But new research indicates boosting their iron levels may help.

A recent study found that giving underweight babies iron supplements for five months reduced behavior problems early in life.

The babies who did not receive iron supplements were over four times more likely to have behavior problems as toddlers.

"Ask your pedestrian about iron supplements."

The study, led by Staffan K. Berglund, MD, PhD, of the Pediatrics department at Umea University in Sweden, looked at whether iron supplementation appeared to reduce toddlers' behavioral problems if they had been born underweight. For the study, the researchers tracked 285 babies who had been born with a low birth weight, between 4.4 and 5.5 pounds.

A third of the babies were given 1 mg of iron supplements daily for each 2.2 pounds they weighed from age 6 weeks old to 6 months old. Another third received 2 mg of iron supplements for every 2.2 pounds they weighed. The last group of babies received placebo (fake) iron supplements with 0 mg of actual iron.

Then when the children were 3.5 years old, the researchers assessed their behavior and IQ as well as that of 95 children who had been born at a normal birth weight.

The researchers did not find any differences between the IQs of the low birth weight children and the normal weight children. The average IQ among the placebo babies was 105.2, compared to 104.2 and 104.5 in the groups getting 1 mg and 2 mg of iron supplements.

But the researchers did find significant differences in behavioral problems across the different groups.

The researchers used a psychological tool called the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and looked at the children who were over a certain score indicating behavioral problems.

While 12.7 percent of the children who didn't receive any iron were over that score threshold, only 2.9 percent of the kids getting 1 mg iron tablets and 2.7 percent of the kids getting 2 mg iron tablets were over the threshold. Among the 95 children with a normal birthweight, only 3.2 percent were over that threshold.

The researchers determined children who were born with a low birth weight and did not receive iron supplements were more than four times more likely to have higher-than-average behavioral problems.

The study appears to show that an iron deficiency in low birth weight babies might contribute to later behavioral problems.

However, the study was conducted among children in higher socioeconomic backgrounds with a high rate of breastfeeding, so the researchers recommend further studies into iron supplementation for underweight babies.

The research was published December 10 in the journal Pediatrics. The research was funded by the Swedish Research Council Formas, the Västerbotten County Council, the Jerring Foundation, the Oskar Foundation and the Medical Faculty at Umea University. The iron drops were provided by the pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca in Sweden. The researchers declared no conflicts of interest in the study.

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Review Date: 
December 9, 2012
Last Updated:
February 18, 2013