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Effect of Infant Iron Deficiency on Children’s Verbal Abilities: The Roles of Child Affect and Parent Unresponsiveness

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Infants who are iron-deficient anemic seek and receive less stimulation from their caregivers, predisposing such children to be functionally isolated.


To test the sequence whereby iron deficiency in infancy contributes to children’s disengagement from the environment, which reduces parent stimulation which, in turn, contributes to children’s poor verbal skills.


Chilean children (N = 875, 54% male) were studied, 45% of whom were iron deficient or iron-deficient anemic in infancy. We used structural equation modeling to test the sequence outlined above and to examine the effect of infant iron status on children’s verbal performance at ages 5 and 10 years including the roles of child and parent intermediate variables.


Severity of iron deficiency in infancy was associated with higher levels of children’s dull affect and social reticence at 5 years (β = .10, B = .26, SE = .12, p < .05), and these behaviors were associated with parent unresponsiveness (β = .29, B = .13, SE = .03, p < .001), which related to children’s lower verbal abilities at age 5 (β = − .29, B = − 2.33, SE = .47, p < .001) and age 10 (β = − .22, B = − 3.04, SE = .75, p < .001). An alternate model where poor iron status related directly to children’s verbal ability was tested but not supported.


Findings support functional isolation processes resulting from a nutritional deficiency, with iron-deficient anemic infants showing affective and behavioral tendencies that limit developmentally stimulating caregiving which, in turn, hinder children’s verbal abilities.

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This study was supported by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under Grant No. RO1-HD-033487 and National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute under Grant Nos. R01-HL-088530 and T32-HL-079891.

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Correspondence to Patricia East.

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East, P., Delker, E., Blanco, E. et al. Effect of Infant Iron Deficiency on Children’s Verbal Abilities: The Roles of Child Affect and Parent Unresponsiveness. Matern Child Health J 23, 1240–1250 (2019).

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