Iron is a vital component of haemoglobin, which is found in our body’s red blood cells. It is these red blood cells that transport oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the cells in our body. Oxygen is vital for our survival, particularly the healthy function of our body’s vital organs (such as our brain and our heart), without which we cannot survive. There is a theory that when your baby is asleep (particularly the deep sleep state), she breathes in less oxygen because she is breathing slowly and shallowly. If there is already a depleted state of oxygen in her body due to an iron deficiency, her vital organs may begin to show signs of stress. The brain will recognize this stress, and will wake the body up, so that a nice, big deep breath can be taken to restore oxygen levels to normal. This may happen at frequent intervals during the night.

Possible reasons for iron deficiency anaemia include

  • prematurity
  • chronic infection
  • an exclusive milk diet after six months of age (full-term babies are born with enough iron to last them for six months – thereafter they need to get their iron from foodstuffs and supplements)
  • nutritional deficiency (for example vegetarian diets)
  • underlying pathology such as blood disorders
  • chronic blood loss due to intestinal parasites (whipworm).

Your child may be suffering from iron-deficiency anaemia if she

  • is waking frequently at night
  • was premature
  • looks pale and listless
  • has dark smudges under her eyes
  • tires easily and sleeps excessively
  • is frequently ill
  • has no appetite
  • displays behavioural problems.

If you suspect that your child is anaemic, speak to your paediatrician, clinic sister or pharmacist to prescribe an iron supplement. Vitamin C is necessary for iron to be absorbed by the body, so it is always a good idea to put your child on a multivitamin syrup that contains vitamin C. Treatment should be ongoing until the underlying cause of the anaemia is clear, but at least an 8-10 week treatment course on an iron supplement should be completed.