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Your grandma probably didn’t have to wonder if the carrots she was serving up were nutritionally adequate. As long as there was enough food, her generation would have rightly assumed their children were receiving all the vitamins and minerals that were required.

Depleted Soils

Parents today, unfortunately, do not enjoy the same luxury. Several recent studies have shown that our soil is nutritionally inferior to what it was a few decades ago. Foods grown today have less protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C than the last century.

Industrial farming is probably to blame for this trend as the focus tends to be on improving yields and cosmetic traits of foods rather than their nutritional value. Not allowing the soil to rest or biodiversity to thrive has led to our topsoil slowly degenerating. Significant components in our diet such as carbohydrates and proteins are easily compensated for by eating more of those food groups. It is the trace elements where we run into problems and where supplementation may provide an answer.

We look at one such trace element fast disappearing from our modern diets in this article: iodine; and the effects of iodine deficiency in small children and how to supplement effectively.


Iodine and its role in the human body

Our body doesn’t manufacture iodine, so it has to be sourced from the foods we consume. Iodine can be found in various foods in negligible amounts but appears in sufficient quantities in seafood and dairy products. Unfortunately, due to the diminishing iodine content in the soil, foods that may have had adequate iodine once may now be lacking. Seafood while high in iodine, may be at risk of contamination. This scenario can be mitigated by looking for good quality seafood sources. Having covered that, we can now discuss why iodine is so essential.

The fundamental role that iodine serves in the human body is assisting in manufacturing the various thyroid hormones. Think of the thyroid gland as a master gland in the human body controlling our metabolism which in turn contributes to everything from our physical to our emotional health as well as our cognitive functions. When a body is iodine-deficient, it causes malfunctions in the thyroid gland which has a knock-on effect on the most significant tasks being carried out in our body.

Bearing in mind declining iodine levels in natural foods as highlighted earlier, these are some foods with higher levels of iodine than others: Seafood, cranberries, potatoes, prunes, milk, and eggs all have reasonable levels of iodine in them. Though not natural, iodized salt is also a familiar source of iodine for people. A rising number of people, however, have begun to avoid salt to minimize the chances of developing conditions like high blood pressure. Among the population who do consume salt, a growing number have switched to sea salt or other variants that are not iodized.

Sources of Iodine suitable for babies and toddler

Breastfed babies derive their iodine needs from their mother’s milk. In case of such babies, one must look at the mother’s iodine levels. If her levels are sufficient, then her baby’s will be too. For formula fed babies, their milk should be fortified with all trace minerals including adequate amounts of iodine.

For toddlers or small children who are no longer consuming breast or formula milk, iodine deficiency could be something you decide to keep an eye on. If your toddler isn’t consuming dairy products or is an extremely picky eater, then they may be at a higher risk of developing iodine deficiencies. It may well be worthwhile to have their levels confirmed, for your peace of mind.

Symptoms of iodine deficiency in a toddler

As stated earlier in this article, iodine aids the normal functioning of the thyroid gland. This role of iodine has been researched more extensively than any other functions it may fulfill in the human body. The thyroid gland is hugely influential and primarily controls our metabolism. In small children, a thyroid problem could impede their physical and cognitive growth, negatively impact their ability to control their inner thermostat, energy levels, mood, skin and hair condition, as well as other bodily functions. A child with normal thyroid function but low iodine levels can still exhibit impaired cognitive function!

All or some of the above symptoms may be present in an iodine deficient child. The thyroid gland malfunctions could progress from subclinical to clinical hypothyroidism, usually, a condition for life if left untreated. However, if found in time, more or less all symptoms of iodine deficiency can be reversed with a relatively easy treatment plan. Several studies have shown improvement in cognitive function by introducing higher levels of iodine in children’s diets.

Iodine supplementation in toddlers

If you suspect your toddler may be iodine deficient, it is a good idea to approach your doctor and get them tested. Iodine levels can be checked in a variety of ways, and your healthcare provider would be able to advise you on the best way to proceed with your child. For instance, instead of blood tests, they may suggest urinary tests – a relatively easy test to undergo. If you decide to supplement, bear in mind the recommended dietary allowance for children aged 1-11 years is 90-120 mcg of iodine per day. It is essential to speak to your doctor before beginning supplements for children. The reason being that overdosing on iodine can have multiple side effects and continuing excessive intake can cause lifelong complications with the thyroid, cognitive and cardiac functions among others.

Special Diets

Vegan and vegetarian children can be at a higher risk of developing iodine deficiencies as they are missing one or two of the main food groups rich in iodine: fish and dairy. If your child is on these diets, be sure to monitor their riboflavin and iodine levels so you can catch any concerns arising at an early stage. In a recent study, a toddler was diagnosed with hypothyroid after discontinuing breast milk and moving on to a vegan diet. At the time of the research, his iodine levels were almost nil, and his thyroid function was greatly diminished. With supervised supplementation, his thyroid function returned to normal levels.

His vegan mother had adequate iodine levels due to consuming fortified plant-based milk, and as she breastfed the baby, she automatically passed on sufficient amounts of iodine to her child. When she stopped breastfeeding, the child’s source of iodine was arrested and not replaced by his new diet.

Foods that impair iodine uptake

If your child is dealing with an iodine deficiency, it is wise to avoid foods that contain goitrogens. These are foods that interfere with iodine uptake and therefore interfere with the thyroid gland. Soy foods, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach are best eaten cooked. Strawberries and peaches are also contra indicated. Till your doctor says otherwise, it is best to create the best situation for your supplement to work and let your thyroid function normalize. Don’t worry if your child loves these food items, they can still enjoy them in moderation. Cooking or steaming also reduces the goitrogenic effects in these foods.

Dangers of excessive iodine

It is difficult to overdose from natural sources of iodine. Overdoses usually occur while supplementing regular diets. If your child experiences a burning sensation in their mouth, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or inexplicable fatigue, then they may have excess iodine in their system. If you are supplementing, it is wise to consult your doctor immediately. Make sure you take the supplements with you so your doctor can check them. If your child already has hypothyroidism, excessive iodine can add additional strain on the thyroid and exacerbate the symptoms. In conclusion, populations around the world are consuming fewer nutrients due to more impoverished soil conditions. Trace elements and minerals are significant casualties in this gradual degradation of our available foods. If you are a breastfeeding mum, get your iodine levels checked so you know if you and your baby are consuming enough! If your baby or toddler is not drinking breast or formula milk, follow vegan or vegetarian diets, or are incredibly picky and fussy eaters, then they may be at risk of iodine deficiency. You can get their levels checked by your doctor and consider supplementing if needed. Remember, unless things have progressed very far, most symptoms of iodine deficiency are reversible. The key is to be informed and act as soon as you become aware of any concerns.

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Hena Chowdhury - part of the Stuff4Tots editorial team
Hena Chowdhury

Hena is a writer, editor and professional video editor with several years experience in fields of writing, theatre, filmmaking and community work especially young people.

Her love for travelling has seen her drive around Europe with her family and her cats and backpack around India for seven months. Hena's blogs written during these travels were read and shared widely - giving her an additional feather in my cap - that of being an imaginative travel writer with a unique perspective of parenting in semi nomadic ways outside of mainstream.

On top of all that Hena's ability to fluently read and write in English, Hindi and Bengali make her a competent translator.