Anaemia during pregnancy

Weak, pale, trouble breathing? Could be normal pregnancy side effects, but it could be worth getting your iron levels checked.

‘Iron-deficiency anaemia is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world today. It impacts the lives of millions of women and children, contributing to poor cognitive development, increased maternal mortality and decreased work capacity,’ says the World Health Organisation.

Why does pregnancy affect iron levels?

A pregnant woman’s blood volume increases by as much as 20% - 30%, which increases the demand for iron production. However, the iron production does not always meet this demand, resulting in iron-deficiency anaemia.

What are symptoms of anaemia?

WHO warns that iron deficiency develops slowly and may not always be apparent until it becomes very severe.  Add to this the fact that many of the symptoms of anaemia are a lot like those you’d get during pregnancy anyway, according the American Society for Haematology, and you’ll understand why it goes unnoticed and untreated.

Anaemia makes you feel weak, tired, your heart races, your breath is short and fast, you’ll most likely be pale in complexion and have trouble concentrating – all very typical ‘side-effects’ of being pregnant.

Who is most at risk of anaemia in pregnancy?

One third of women in their third trimesters are at risk for developing anaemia, however, some women are more susceptible to developing the condition than others – they include women who’ve had subsequent pregnancies close together; women carrying multiples; women who suffer from constant morning sickness and vomiting; those who do not have enough iron in their diets; and those who normally experience heavy periods.

What effect does anaemia have on you and your baby?

An anaemic mother-to-be is at greater risk of blood loss during labour, which makes it more difficult to recover or fight post-labour infections if they occur. Anaemia also increases the risk of post-partum haemorrhage (Allen and Casterline-Sabel, 2000).

Babies are more at risk of preterm labour and therefore having a low birth-weight. The chances of the baby developing anaemia themselves later on in infancy are also increased, and anaemia during infancy affects cognitive development as well as compromises their immune systems.

How can you prevent anaemia during pregnancy?

A healthy balanced diet rich in green leafy vegetables and red meat is a good start. The American National Anaemia Action Council (NAAC) recommends amplifying your iron intake by eating iron rich foods with foods that contain vitamin C, which helps the iron to be absorbed more easily; you should also eat iron-rich vegetables and meats together and cook these vegetables, which also releases the most iron.

However, it can’t hurt to talk to your doctor about an iron supplement during pregnancy. The reason for this is because, according to WHO, the amount of iron absorbed through diet is not usually sufficient, especially for women in their childbearing years and young children, who need increased levels of iron in their bodies.

Did you know?

If you have natural birth and allow your baby to lie on your chest until the umbilical cord stops pulsating, this continued blood flow increases a transfer of iron from you to your baby, which will help decrease the chance of possible iron deficiency later on, according to WHO.

In addition, breastfeeding for at least six months, will make sure that you build up a healthy iron reserve once again.

What about after birth?

WHO recommends that women continue to take an iron supplement and watch their iron intake for at least three months after their natural menstrual cycle starts again, until their natural iron stores are replenished. 

Do you suffer from anaemia? What do you recommend?

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