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Diabetes in young children

7-minute read

Diabetes is rare in children under 5 years of age. But if young children develop diabetes, it is very serious.

Here’s how to spot the symptoms of diabetes and manage the condition.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a potentially life-threatening condition. It causes high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood.

Glucose levels are normally 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.

Type 1 diabetes

The most common type of diabetes in children is type 1 diabetes. This was once called juvenile diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition.

Type 1 diabetes is usually an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system destroys the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

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

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes 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.

What are the symptoms of diabetes in children under 5?

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

  • being very thirsty
  • being very hungry
  • urinating (weeing) 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 their eyesight
  • having a yeast infection (thrush)
  • having fruity-smelling breath
  • being irritable, restless or moody

If your child has these symptoms, see your doctor urgently.

If your child’s blood glucose level is very high, they may develop a serious condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). Symptoms of DKA can include:

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a serious condition that needs immediate medical attention. If you think your child may have DKA, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

What causes diabetes?

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

Type 2 diabetes runs in families. It is also linked to being overweight, having an unhealthy diet and not getting enough physical activity.

If you had diabetes when you were pregnant (gestational diabetes), your baby is at increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

How is diabetes diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask your child about their symptoms and examine them.

Diabetes can be diagnosed with a blood test. Your child may also have a urine test.

A first diagnosis of diabetes in a child is a medical emergency. If your doctor suspects your child has diabetes, they will refer you to the local emergency department.

How is diabetes treated in young children?

Insulin treatment

Your child will need treatment with insulin several times a day. This is given by injection or with an insulin pen.

Another option is an insulin pump, a small device that is worn 24 hours a day. It delivers insulin to the body through a plastic tube. Insulin pumps are not suitable for every child, so discuss this with your doctor.

You may be eligible for a subsidy from the Australian Government to buy an insulin pump. Visit the JDRF website for more information.

Glucose monitoring

You’ll need to monitor your child’s blood glucose levels regularly. This may be 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 their blood sugar levels within a target range set by your doctor.

Blood sugar levels that are too low (hypoglycaemia) or too high (hyperglycaemia) can be dangerous. You will need to learn how to recognise and manage high and low blood sugar levels.

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.

Your child’s insulin needs will vary from day to day, depending on:

  • what they eat
  • whether they’re sick
  • whether they’re growing
  • how much sleep they’ve had

How to manage your own needs

Finding out your child has diabetes can be overwhelming. You may manage better on some days than others and should try to take one day at a time.

But you are not alone. You will have a team of professionals to help you, which may include a:

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.

Also make sure that glucose (sugar found in many foods, including honey and fruit juices) is always available in case of hypoglycaemia.

Where can I get more information about diabetes?

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022

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