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Diabetes in young children

5-minute read

Diabetes is rare in children under 5, but if young children develop diabetes it is very serious. Here is how to spot the symptoms of diabetes and manage the condition.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a potentially life-threatening condition which leads to high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Glucose is controlled by the hormone insulin, which is produced by the pancreas. Diabetes develops when the pancreas doesn’t work properly, or when the body doesn’t use insulin properly.

There are different types of diabetes. The most common in children is type 1 diabetes, also called juvenile diabetes. This is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition that must be managed with regular injections of insulin.

Type 2 diabetes is more common in people over 40. It develops when the body stops using insulin properly. Type 2 diabetes is becoming more common in younger adults, but it is very rare in young children.

Very rarely, babies are born with diabetes. This is called neonatal diabetes and is caused by a problem with the genes. Neonatal diabetes can disappear by the time the child is 12 months old, but the diabetes usually returns later in life.

In Australia, about 26 in every 100,000 children under 5 have type 1 diabetes.

Diabetes symptoms in children under 5

It can be hard to spot the symptoms of diabetes in young children. Symptoms normally develop quickly, over a few weeks, and include:

  • being very thirsty
  • being very hungry
  • urinating more — your child might start wetting themselves again if they are toilet trained
  • feeling tired and weak all the time
  • losing weight without any explanation
  • having blurred vision or other problems with eyesight
  • having a yeast infection (thrush)
  • having fruity-smelling breath
  • being irritable, restless or moody

If your child has several of these symptoms, see a doctor. It’s very important to treat diabetes since it can lead to serious problems over time such as heart disease or damage to the kidneys, nerves, eyes and skin.

Why diabetes develops

The causes of type 1 diabetes are not known, although it does run in families. There is nothing you can do to prevent your child from developing type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is linked to being overweight and having a poor diet. Even though type 2 diabetes is very rare in young children, people are more likely to develop the condition later if they are overweight or obese as children. Making sure your child eats a healthy diet, exercises regularly and does not become overweight will help protect them against diabetes in the future. 

If you had diabetes when you were pregnant (gestational diabetes), your baby is at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life. Most type 2 diabetes can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and following a healthy eating plan.

Diagnosis of diabetes

Diabetes is diagnosed with a blood test. Sometimes your child will need to fast overnight first. They may also have a urine test.

If they have diabetes, your child will likely have regular blood tests to check their blood sugar levels, cholesterol and whether their thyroid and kidneys are working properly.

Managing diabetes in young children

Your child will need insulin several times a day. This is given by injection or with an insulin pen. Another option is an insulin pump, a small device which is worn 24 hours a day and delivers insulin to the body through a plastic tube. A pump is not suitable for every child, so discuss this with your doctor. You may be eligible for a subsidy from the Australian Government to buy a pump. Visit the JDRF website for more information.

You will need to monitor your child’s blood glucose levels regularly, up to 6 times throughout the day and night. You do this by testing a drop of your child’s blood in a special testing kit. The aim is to keep the levels within a target range set by your doctor.

To keep blood glucose levels within the right range, you will need to carefully balance the food your child eats with the amount of physical activity they do and their insulin.

If their blood glucose levels fall too low, your child could develop hypoglycaemia, or if they are too high they could develop hyperglycaemia, which could lead to an even more serious condition known as ketoacidosis. Both of these conditions are medical emergencies and you will need to learn how to recognise and manage them.

You will also need to keep your child healthy by following an eating plan and making sure they get plenty of physical activity.

How to manage your own needs

Finding out your child has diabetes can be overwhelming. Your child’s needs will vary from day to day, depending on what they eat, whether they’re sick, whether they’re growing and how much sleep they’ve had. You will manage better on some days than others and should try to take one day at a time.

Remember that having diabetes can affect your child’s behaviour. They may feel different from other children. Involve your child in their own care and teach them how to make good choices for their health. It’s also a good idea to introduce them to other children who have diabetes.

You are not alone. You will have a team of professionals to help you, which may include your GP, endocrinologist, diabetes educator dietitian, podiatrist and eye specialist. A credentialed diabetes educator is a specially trained health professional who will show you how to manage your child’s diabetes. To find a credentialed diabetes educator near you, visit the Australian Diabetes Educators Association website.

Make sure everyone who cares for your child knows they have diabetes and how to manage it. And make sure that glucose (a type of sugar found in many foods, including honey and fruit juices) is always available in case of hypoglycaemia.

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Last reviewed: April 2020

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