Anemia is defined as a decrease in the normal amount of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood.
For a variety of reasons, infants are particularly prone to anemia.
Hemoglobin, found mainly in red blood cells, is the molecule that carries oxygen in our blood to our tissues.
An infant becomes anemic because too many RBC’s are lost or not enough new ones are being made.
Although the body continuously makes new RBC’s, they are destroyed after an average life span of 120 days or are lost to bleeding.
Premature infants, for example, usually have frequent blood draws done as part of their care. This can leave them anemic.
Some newborns have trouble clotting their blood, so that minor cuts (such as with circumcision) can lead to profound blood loss.
That’s why newborns are given an injection of vitamin K, which promotes the clotting of blood.
Sometimes RBC’s are destroyed more quickly than usual because of infections, medicines, and sometimes by the body’s immune system (it can mistakenly attack and destroy RBC’s).
A number of inherited conditions can cause RBC’s to be abnormal, which can lead to their early destruction.
One of the most common is sickle cell anemia.
More common in those of Sub-Saharan African descent, it is screened for at birth in Kentucky.
Sometimes RBC’s are not made fast enough to balance their natural destruction. Iron is an important component of hemoglobin — when in short supply, RBC’s are not made as quickly.
Iron-deficiency anemia is by far the most common cause of anemia in infants.
Breast milk has some iron in it, but the American Academy of Pediatrics has recently started recommending supplemental iron in exclusively breastfed infants starting at 4 months of age until iron-containing solid foods (such as fortified infant cereal) are given.
Standard infant formulas contain iron, as well.
Aplastic anemia is caused by the slowing or stopping of RBC production as the result of viruses, certain medicines, radiations, environmental toxins (such as lead) and cancer.
Signs of infant anemia include paleness of skin, of mucous membranes and of nail beds.
Infants can be weak, irritable and easily fatigued. With severe anemia, they may have shortness of breath, increased heart rate,and swelling of the hands and feet.
Anemia is tested for with a hemoglobin level or hematocrit. Treatment depends on its particular cause.