Maternal Iron Deficiency Disrupts Mother/Child Interaction

April 5, 2005

(University Park, Pa) — New mothers who are mildly iron deficient — a common result of childbirth among women who donít take their vitamins — are less emotionally available or in tune with their babies, a Penn State study has shown.

“Earlier research had shown that anemic women may experience post-partum depression and that women with moderate iron deficiency have a slow down in thinking and memory,” says Dr. Laura Murray-Kolb, a National Institute of Mental Health post-doctoral fellow in child development at Penn State and leader of the study. “Our new results suggest that the effects of mild iron deficiency, which are easily correctable with supplements, can disrupt the solid foundation that is established by healthy mother/infant interactions.”

The study, which is the first to focus on the effects of maternal iron deficiency on mother/child interactions, was detailed April 5 during the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, California. The paper, titled “Maternal Iron Deficiency Impacts Mother-Child Interaction,” was written by Murray-Kolb; Dr. John L. Beard, Penn State professor of nutritional sciences; Dr. Rick O. Gilmore, Penn State associate professor of psychology; Dr. Douglas Teti, Penn State professor of human development and family studies; and Drs. Eva Perez and Michael Hendricks, physicians in Cape Town, South Africa.

The study was conducted in South Africa with 64 women who were identified as mildly iron deficient after childbirth and 31 who were not iron deficient. At 10 weeks after childbirth, the women and their babies were videotaped interacting. Half of the iron-deficient women were then given iron supplements. After nine months, all of the women — those who received supplements, those who did not and those in the group of iron sufficient women — were videotaped interacting with their babies again.

Analysis of the tapes showed that the mothering of the women who were iron sufficient and those who received supplements differed from those who were mildly iron deficient on measures of emotional availability. For example, observed in play interactions, the mildly iron-deficient mothers were less sensitive to their babyís cues. They also scored lower on giving their babies chances to lead interactions. In addition, iron-deficient mothers cut in on the babyís play at inappropriate times more often and appeared bored or distant more frequently than the other mothers.

At nine months, the babies of the three groups of mothers also behaved differently. For example, the babies of the mildly iron-deficient women were less responsive and less involved with their mothers. When moving away from a mildly iron-deficient mother, the baby would depend less on mom for reassurance.

“New mothers should be aware of their iron status, which we know now affects the child as well as the mother,” Murray-Kolb says. “Iron deficiency is easy to correct and could be a big part of postpartum problems with mother/child interactions.”

The study was supported by the International Life Sciences Institute and the Penn State Children, Youth and Families Consortium.

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Editors: Dr. Murray-Kolb can be reached at (814) 863-5664 or For additional information, please contact Barbara Hale, Penn State science and research information officer, at (814) 865-9481or