It’s no surprise that a woman’s body will undergo changes during pregnancy to accommodate the baby as it grows. One of the biggest changes is that of her blood. While this might not be an obvious change (like that of a growing belly), it’s a very important change that requires some effort on the mother’s part to avoid putting herself and her baby in harm’s way.
Iron deficiency in pregnancy is not only dangerous, but also far too common. In Canada, an estimated 50% of pregnant women are iron deficient. Women of childbearing age are already at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency due to regular blood loss and subsequent iron loss (from menstruation), but the risk increases significantly once pregnant.
Why Pregnancy Increases Your Risk
One of the underlying causes of iron deficiency is increased blood volume, which is precisely what places a pregnant woman at risk. A woman’s body needs almost double the amount of iron during pregnancy. This is because by the end of her pregnancy her body will have as much as 50% more blood. Producing these extra red blood cells means that more iron is needed to make hemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body).
As the fetus develops, it will take the iron that it requires from the mother and by the end of the pregnancy will start storing iron for the first six months of his/her life. This is why it is so important for a woman to have adequate iron levels and iron stores even before conception, to ensure that she has enough iron to appropriately support her changing body and her growing baby throughout the entire pregnancy.
As I mentioned above, being a woman of childbearing age already significantly increases the risk of developing iron deficiency and if a woman has low iron before becoming pregnant, then her risk for anemia during pregnancy increases.
A pregnant woman’s risk increases even further if she:
- Had very heavy periods before pregnancy
- Vomits frequently due to morning sickness
- Is carrying more than one baby
- Had more than two pregnancies close together
- Doesn’t get enough iron in her daily diet
The Effects of Iron Deficiency on Mom and Baby
Iron deficiency and anemia can cause frequent headaches and leave you feeling weak or fatigued. Often times, these symptoms may go unnoticed at first as they can be mild, or a pregnant women may perceive these symptoms as being a natural part of pregnancy; however, if not taken care of, the symptoms related to iron deficiency or anemia will worsen.
Symptoms of iron deficiency during pregnancy can include:
- Generalized weakness or fatigue
- Trouble concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid or pounding heartbeat
- Pica – cravings to chew ice or eat “unusual” items (such as paper, dirt, clay, etc.)
The last thing a pregnant woman needs is to be dealing with symptoms of iron deficiency – iron deficiency is preventable and treatable which is of course important for mom, but also extremely important for baby. A baby is more likely to be born prematurely or underweight if it doesn’t get the iron it needs from his/her mom during pregnancy. Iron deficiency in pregnancy has also been shown to increase the risk of learning and behavioral issues for the child and has also been linked to a high rate of infant and maternal mortality.
Getting the Iron You and Your Baby Need
Iron is an essential nutrient for everyone, especially for a mom-to-be and her developing baby. For non-pregnant women aged 14 to 50, the recommended daily iron intake is 15 mg to 18 mg respectively, and increases to 27 mg per day for pregnant women.
Eating iron-rich foods is always recommended to help increase daily iron consumption and to help prevent iron deficiency; however, Health Canada says that most pregnant women in North America have trouble getting the iron they require through diet alone. Depending on your situation and your needs, your doctor may recommend a multivitamin containing iron or an iron supplement.
In the majority of cases, an iron supplement is effective at reversing the effects of iron deficiency or anemia, and there are many ways to take iron that are safe in pregnancy. Talk to your doctor for more information.
Stay tuned for Part 3: Post-Pregnancy!
This series is presented by Dr. Anne G. McLeod
Dr. McLeod is a hematologist who completed her training at the University of Toronto, McMaster University and Harvard University and currently works within the Department of Hematology and Medical Oncology and the Thromboembolism Team at Sunnybrook Hospital.
Dr. McLeod is also an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto and her area of academic interest is cancer-associated thrombosis and hematologic disorders in pregnancy.
Content and advice provided on The Iron Maiden is for information purposes only and should not serve as a substitute for a licensed health care provider, who is knowledgeable about an individual’s unique health care needs