Pregnant and feeling exhausted? It makes sense to feel sapped of energy as your body works harder than ever to create the right environment for your baby during the first trimester.
Then, in the later stages of pregnancy, there are disruptions to sleep from things like restless legs syndrome and heartburn. Plus, carrying around the extra weight of a baby can be tiring.
But while tiredness during pregnancy is very common, it is also one of the symptoms of iron deficiency. Having low iron levels is not ideal in any life stage, but particularly during pregnancy as it can have effects on your baby, as well as have risk factors for you.
Thankfully, iron deficiency can be very easily treated. Here's what you need to understand about the importance of iron during pregnancy.
What causes iron-deficiency anaemia during pregnancy?
Anaemia is a health condition where the level of your red blood cells is abnormally low and there's not enough to carry oxygen your body. It affects about one-third of women.
One cause of anaemia is iron deficiency. Typically this means you might not be getting enough iron in your diet, or your gut isn't absorbing enough iron from your food.
But, iron deficiency anaemia can significantly affect pregnant people as your body needs more blood to help your baby grow. Plus, as your baby grows, it takes its iron requirements from your own iron stores.
So even if you have an iron-rich diet, your needs may simply be too high to get enough iron from food.
Symptoms of anaemia during pregnancy
- Feeling tired, weak and short of breath
- Having headaches
- Feeling lightheaded and fainting
- A fast or irregular heartbeat
- Pale skin, gums, eyes, and nail beds
- A craving for starch or ice
While it is important to be aware of iron deficiency anaemia symptoms and be conscious of what's happening with your body, don't feel too pressured to self-diagnose.
Doctors actively look out for iron deficiency in pregnant people and it is routine for them to check your iron levels through a blood test, making it relatively simple to have iron deficiency anaemia diagnosed.
Types of anaemia during pregnancy
Although about 50 per cent of anaemia cases in pregnant people are caused by an iron deficiency, there are a couple of other types of anaemia.
Sometimes in pregnancy, anaemia can be caused by a deficiency in folic acid or one of the other B vitamins. Increasing your folic acid intake when you're pregnant is important for your baby's growth and development.
Can low iron affect baby growth?
Understandably, one of the main reasons any mum might be concerned about their iron levels is the effect that a deficiency could have on their baby.
Since a pregnant person's body needs more blood to help with their baby's growth, an iron deficiency would mean that the baby grows slower than usual in the uterus and they would be smaller than desired for their gestation age.
Iron deficiency anaemia can also result in a premature birth and low birth weight. Even once a baby has arrived, it's important for them to continue getting enough iron to grow and gain weight.
Can low iron cause developmental delays?
When babies are born, they have a reserve of iron that they have built up in the womb from their mother's blood. If a woman has iron deficiency anaemia while pregnant, their baby may be born with low iron stores.
But along with physical growth, iron is important for brain development in babies and children. Our brains are most vulnerable during periods of rapid brain growth, which occur in the third trimester of pregnancy and in the first two years postpartum.
A lack of iron during this period, even if not to the extent of becoming anaemic, has been linked to lower cognitive, motor, social-emotional and neurophysiological development.
While reading those effects might make your stomach turn, these developmental delays can be easily prevented or reversed by ensuring both mum and baby get enough iron early in development or before the deficiency becomes severe anaemia.
Does low iron during pregnancy have any other effects on your baby?
Aside from that, it's also really important to know how iron deficiency can affect you as a mum, during and after birth. Since iron deficiency anaemia can leave you feeling weaker, it can also mean that you don't recover as quickly from blood loss, infection or other complications following the birth of your baby.
And because iron-deficiency anaemia means you have fewer red blood cells, it increases the likelihood of needing a blood transfusion after a caesarean or if you experience significant blood loss during delivery.
A blood transfusion also increases your risk of infection.
During the postpartum period, iron deficiency can reduce the amount of breast milk you're able to produce and leave you feeling extra tired, which is something you probably don't want when adjusting to life with a newborn.
How is iron-deficiency anaemia during pregnancy treated?
Reading about the symptoms of iron deficiency and the effects it can have might not be the most comforting part of preparing to have a baby, but rest assured that it can be straightforward to treat iron deficiency anaemia.
Diet and supplements for iron deficiency
Pregnant people are recommended to consume around 30 mg of iron every day. If you've had blood tests that show you're iron deficient with mild anaemia, your doctor is likely to suggest you eat more iron-rich foods and take oral iron supplements.
Some iron-rich proteins that would be beneficial to add to your diet include lean red meat, beans, lentils and oysters. Other types of iron-rich foods that can help bump up your intake include iron-fortified cereal, dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
It can also be helpful to take an iron supplement since it can be difficult to get enough iron from food alone. When having your meals or taking iron supplements, it's also worth considering which foods block iron absorption and which foods improve the absorption of iron.
Dairy products, such as milk or yoghurt, as well as tea and coffee, can stop your body from soaking up iron. If you want to have a tea, coffee or something with dairy, it's recommended that you have it an hour before, or wait an hour after having your iron-rich foods and supplement, so that they don't interfere with each other.
On the other hand, vitamin C is really helpful in supporting your body's iron absorption.
Some examples of how you can make the most of this are simply having a glass of orange juice with your iron supplements, or squeezing some lemon juice onto your meal.
Kin's Iron Support supplement is designed to relieve fatigue from inadequate iron intake and low iron levels in pregnancy. Iron is an essential mineral for growth, yet 1 in 2 women experience an iron deficiency in pregnancy.
Designed to support you during conception, pregnancy, postpartum or just daily, the Iron Support relieves tiredness, supports a baby's development, sustains healthy iron levels and maintains energy production.
Other treatments for iron-deficiency anaemia
While the majority of pregnant women with iron deficiency anaemia are successfully treated with diet and oral iron supplementation, if your red blood cells are not increasing quickly enough, or if you have severe anaemia, you may be recommended other treatments.
This may be an iron infusion where the iron is delivered to the body through an IV drip. Another option is a blood transfusion, however, this treatment is for extreme cases.
So, while we've established that an iron deficiency is not ideal during pregnancy — for either you or your baby — it is something that is super common in a lot of people (pregnant or not).
There are a lot of expecting mums out there going through a similar experience and for the majority of people, increasing the amount of iron in your diet and taking an oral iron supplement is enough to prevent the adverse effects of anaemia.
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