Diabetes in Children: Causes, Signs, and Treatment

Diabetes is a chronic condition that can occur at any age, even in a kid's first year of life. Read below to learn more about the diabetes symptoms in toddlers and older children, its diagnosis, and available treatment.

What Is Diabetes?

Diabetes being a metabolic disorder impacts the blood sugar (blood glucose or glucose) levels in a human's body. The cells in your body need energy that is usually obtained from blood sugar. The carbohydrates in the food you eat are broken down into glucose, which is then used as a fuel by your body.

The job of converting glucose into energy is of a hormone called insulin. This insulin, produced by an organ behind the stomach called pancreas, supplies the glucose in the blood to the cells. The body of people with diabetes isn't able to convert glucose into energy. This happens because either the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or the produced insulin doesn’t work the way it should, leading the sugar to stay in the blood. This, in turn, leads to increase in blood sugar levels, which can cause health problems if they remain high for long.

Diabetes can't be cured, but it can be managed. If your child is diagnosed with diabetes, you can take certain steps to manage it, helping your kid to lead a happy and healthy life.

What Are the Different Types of Diabetes?

Diabetes is of two types: type 1 and type 2. Here's the difference between them:

Type 1 Diabetes

People who have a low or no supply at all of insulin have type 1 diabetes. When a child with type 1 diabetes eats, the blood glucose levels rise considerably, which is called hyperglycaemia. In this condition, the cells do not use the nutrients in food to make energy, and the sugar simply remains in the blood.

As these cells don't get their fuel, they feel they are starving. This triggers the liver to generate more sugar from the body's fat and protein stores in response, making it a vicious cycle. Your body cannot use the additional glucose but ends up producing more.

Type 1 diabetes can lead to weight loss and weakness. Type 1 diabetes in toddlers is very common as compared to type 2.

Type 2 Diabetes

The pancreas of adults and children with type 2 diabetes is able to produce insulin. However, the body doesn't respond to it as it should. In this condition, the blood glucose can't enter the cells and cannot supply the energy needed by the cells. This is also referred to as insulin resistance, where the sugar builds up in the bloodstream.

Later on, the pancreas begins working harder to produce more insulin, which can strain the organ, causing it to struggle to produce enough insulin to maintain the blood sugar at a healthy level. Although this type of diabetes is more common in adults, some children and teenagers can also develop type 2 diabetes, which is often associated with obesity.

You may be aware of the term prediabetes that refers to having higher blood sugar levels than normal, but not high enough to qualify as type 2 diabetes. This prediabetes can later transform into type 2 diabetes. However, the good news is - your child with prediabetes can prevent getting type 2 diabetes by making changes to diet and activity levels while reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. Such positive lifestyle changes may also help your kid to bring his blood sugar levels back to normal.

What Causes Diabetes in Toddlers?

The cause or causes of diabetes in children and toddlers is unknown. However, experts have formed some theories and have identified risk factors for both types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes:

    This type of diabetes usually occurs in kids whose immune system – which usually fights viruses and harmful bacteria – destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Although why this happens is not well understood, we do know that it’s not caused by your or your child’s diet or lifestyle. Experts believe that genetics or environmental factors, like exposure to viruses that trigger this autoimmune response, could be responsible.

  • Type 2 diabetes:

    This form of diabetes is more common in adults, but rarely it can appear in children, too. Type 2 diabetes may also be linked to family history and genetics, but a sedentary lifestyle and excess fat, especially in the belly area, can also play a role.

What Are the Warning Signs of Diabetes in Kids?

Some of the diabetes symptoms in children are similar to things that can happen in everyday life – like increased thirst on a hot day. However, if you notice any of these warning signs of diabetes in your toddler, it's always safest to tell your child’s doctor, who can either rule out or diagnose diabetes.

The symptoms of type 1 diabetes (the kind that most often affects babies or young children) can develop quickly – within a few days or weeks.

Type 2 diabetes symptoms develop more slowly, which is why it can sometimes go unnoticed for a long time – maybe even for several years.

Possible warning signs of diabetes in children include:

  • Increased thirst or dehydration:

    The excess glucose in the bloodstream pulls fluid from tissues, and this can cause increased thirst or dehydration. Although your toddler asking for more water could have many natural causes, like hot weather or playing energetically, increased thirst can sometimes be a sign of diabetes, especially if the thirst is prolonged or is combined with other symptoms.

  • Frequent or increased urination:

    You may find that you're changing a lot more nappies than usual, or if your toddler is toilet trained you may see more frequent bedwetting or notice that your child needs to pee more often.

  • Weight loss:

    It might be that your toddler shows an increased appetite and eats more but still loses weight, or there could be a persistent loss of appetite resulting in weight loss. Either way, let your doctor know.

  • Tiredness or fatigue you cannot explain:

    You may notice your toddler is unusually tired all the time without any obvious reason.

  • Blurred vision:

    Let your doctor know if your child complains about not being able to see properly, as it could be a warning sign of diabetes.

  • Cuts and scratches taking longer to heal than usual:

    You might also notice frequent fungal infections like oral thrush.

How Is Diabetes in Toddlers Diagnosed?

If there’s reason to suspect your toddler has diabetes, your child’s doctor will do a urine test and may also take a blood sample for a glucose (sugar) test.

If these tests show that your toddler might have diabetes, your child will be offered more tests and a thorough assessment in a hospital. This might involve one of the following blood tests for diabetes:

  • Fasting blood sugar test:

    For this test, a blood sample is taken after an overnight fast, ideally first thing in the morning before breakfast.

  • Oral glucose tolerance test:

    If your doctor suspects type 2 diabetes, an oral glucose tolerance test may be recommended. The first blood test is taken on an empty stomach like in the fasting blood sugar test. Then your child will be given a sugary solution to drink and blood sugar levels will be rechecked after a set number of hours have passed.

What Is the Treatment for Diabetes in Toddlers?

If the diagnosis comes back positive for diabetes, treatment can begin immediately. Initially, your child will meet the doctor or diabetes care team every week or two. Later, once you’re better accustomed to the new situation, an appointment every three months is usually enough.

The doctor or care team will help you learn how to manage your toddler’s diabetes, such as injecting insulin, testing blood sugar levels and keeping to a diabetes-friendly diet. They can also give advice on attending nursery or primary school and talk to your child’s teachers and any other carers.

Although there is no cure for diabetes, with treatment and consistent care your child can go on to have a normal, full and happy life. Treatment depends on whether your toddler has type 1 or type 2 diabetes, but the treatment plan may include:

  • Blood sugar monitoring:

    You will need to check your toddler’s blood sugar regularly. Testing helps you make sure your child’s blood sugar levels are within the target range.

  • Administering insulin:

    If your toddler has type 1 diabetes, then life-long treatment with insulin will be necessary. Some cases of type 2 diabetes also require insulin, but it’s not usually needed by young children. Insulin is often given as an injection but is sometimes administered through a pump. Your toddler’s diabetes care team will show you how to give injections or use the pump and later teach your child to self-administer insulin when he or she is old enough.

  • A healthy diet:

    Eating well is a big part of any diabetes treatment plan, and your diabetes care team will help you work out a healthy, balanced diet plan to follow.

  • Regular exercise:

    Encourage your little one to be physically active. Exercise has plenty of benefits, especially when it comes to managing diabetes. Besides helping to keep your child fit and at a healthy weight, staying active can also help the body to use insulin more efficiently. You can get involved and even make it a part of your family routine – there are so many ways to do this. Go outside and play ball together, take the family on a hike, play tag, or bounce around on a trampoline.

  • Counting carbohydrates:

    If your toddler has type 1 diabetes, your child’s diabetes care team will explain how to count carbohydrates in foods so the dose of insulin can be calculated accurately.

  • Medical screening:

    Your child will be given a glycated haemoglobin blood test (also known as HbA1c) four times a year. This is used to measure your child’s average blood sugar levels over the previous few weeks and months. Knowing the HbA1c level is important for assessing the risk of complications and taking steps to avoid them in good time. Besides the HbA1c test, your child will be regularly weighed and measured, and screened for other conditions that are sometimes associated with diabetes.

  • Medication:

    In addition to lifestyle changes, children with type 2 diabetes may be prescribed medicines that reduce the amount of blood sugar the liver releases into the bloodstream.

Can Diabetes Be Prevented?

As yet, there is no known prevention strategy for type 1 diabetes; but type 2 can sometimes be prevented with healthy lifestyle choices.

If you have a family history of type 1 diabetes, if you notice symptoms of diabetes in your toddler or if your child has been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, you can prevent complications by:

  • Helping your little one maintain good blood sugar levels as much as possible

  • Helping your toddler follow a healthy diet

  • Encouraging your toddler to get active

  • Scheduling regular visits with your child’s diabetes care team.

Type 2 diabetes can be prevented by making appropriate lifestyle choices, so encourage healthy habits in your toddler from an early age by:

Providing healthy meals and snacks:

Make sure your child eats a healthy, balanced diet, focusing on fruit, vegetables, lean sources of protein and dairy and whole grains, and avoiding giving sugary sweets and drinks, high calorie treats and food high in fat.

Keeping your toddler physically active:

Try to make sure your little one gets at least 60 minutes of exercise a day – make it fun and maybe even do it together. Staying fit and active together can have great health benefits for you too!

The Bottom Line

Diabetes is a condition that stays for life and requires consistent care and management. However, it can be treated and with ample support to help your child, he can live a happy and healthy life.

Once you start taking the necessary steps involved in managing your child’s diabetes, they will become part of your lifestyle. Soon, your focus will shift to watching and helping your little one grow and experience all the ups and downs, milestones, and magic moments like other kids of his age.

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