Did your preconception checkup include an iron level check? According to National Institutes of Health statistics, an estimated 35 percent to 58 percent of all healthy women are deficient in iron; among women of childbearing age, one in five has iron-deficiency anemia, a more serious condition. Previously thought to be a concern mainly of late pregnancy, research shows that low iron levels very early on in pregnancy may lead to problems in babies' brain development, including an increased risk for slow language learning and behavioral problems in childhood.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center, pinpointed the critical period for iron levels and brain development as beginning in the weeks prior to conception and extending through the first trimester and beginning of the second trimester. Research also showed that iron deficiency that started in the third trimester did not seem to harm the developing brain.
Eating iron-rich foods as part of a healthy preconception diet is a good way to boost levels of this all-important mineral. Prenatal vitamins also contain iron, often enough to ensure adequate intake, but a supplement solution may not work for all women.
"Prenatal care usually involves the recommendation of a multivitamin that contains iron, which is usually prescribed after pregnancy is confirmed or at the first prenatal visit. But not all women have access to prenatal care, and not all women can take the supplements in early pregnancy due to vomiting," says Dr. Monique Ho, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Pediatrics at URMC.
Symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include fatigue (tiredness); shortness of breath; dizziness, especially when standing up; headache; coldness in your hands or feet; pale skin, gums, and nail beds; and chest pain. If you're concerned about your iron levels, talk to your doctor about ordering a blood hemoglobin test. Hemoglobin is an iron-rich protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the body; low hemoglobin indicates low iron.