Glucose, aka blood sugar, is the body's main source of energy. But in people with diabetes — including children — blood sugar levels may fall outside the healthy range.
Healthy blood sugar levels for kids are about the same as those for adults. However, there are some key differences when it comes to managing diabetes in children. Here's what parents need to know.
Normal Blood Sugar for Kids
The body gets most of its glucose by metabolizing the carbohydrates in food. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, helps move glucose out of the blood and into the cells, where it is used for energy, according to Kaiser Permanente. Through this process, insulin also lowers blood sugar. For people with diabetes, insulin function is impaired, leading to high blood sugar.
Glucose levels vary in both children and adults, depending on how long it has been since the last meal, drink or snack. According to Yale School of Medicine, a normal blood sugar for a child without diabetes should fall within the following ranges:
- Before breakfast (fasting blood sugar): 70 to 120 mg/dL
- One to two hours after meals: Less than 140 mg/dL
- Before meals and at bedtime: 70 to 120 mg/dL
Blood glucose levels can be checked during your child's regular doctor appointment. If blood sugar levels are elevated, the doctor may order additional blood and/or urine tests to determine whether your child has diabetes.
Children and Low Blood Sugar
Healthy blood sugar levels for kids are the same as those for adults. However, "children's glucose [levels] tend to drop more rapidly than adults'," says Heidi Quinn, RDN, a certified diabetes educator at Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center.
Blood sugar levels under 70 mg/dL are considered low. The symptoms of low blood sugar include hunger, irritability, sweating, pale skin, dizziness and/or trouble paying attention, according to Stanford Children's Health. Be aware of these symptoms, because it's important to treat low blood sugar right away.
If your child has hypoglycemia, he or she needs to eat a small amount of sugary food (or drink a sugary drink such as fruit juice) immediately. Be sure to discuss hypoglycemia treatments with your child's doctor, because the balance can be a bit challenging to maintain. If your child consumes too much sugar in an effort to raise their low blood sugar, their blood glucose level can then rise too high — another health concern.
If your child has diabetes, talk to his or her health care provider about your hypoglycemia treatment, according to Stanford Children's Health. In severe cases, a sugar-increasing injection may be necessary.
Types of Diabetes
There are two main types of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is the most common type among children, according to Quinn. The pancreases of children with type 1 diabetes don't produce enough insulin. This causes glucose to build up in the blood, resulting in high blood sugar. This type of diabetes is called heritable, as the likelihood of developing type 1 diabetes is passed through families, according to the Genetics Home Reference. Though it can occur at any age, type 1 typically presents around age 9 or 10.
Type 2 diabetes isn't as closely tied to genetics, though a family history of the condition is a risk factor for type 2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 diabetes is most common in adults and is mainly linked to obesity and unhealthy lifestyle habits. However, Quinn says that there has been a rise in the number of children with type 2 diabetes, in correlation with the obesity epidemic in America.
Signs of Diabetes in Kids
It can be challenging to spot the signs of diabetes in children because they may not be able to communicate their symptoms to you. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are some signs to look out for:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination, especially within a short amount of time
- Extreme hunger, accompanied by weight loss
- Irritability and/or behavioral changes
- Fruity-smelling breath
- Blurred vision (children rubbing their eyes can be an indication of this)
- Nausea and vomiting
Bed-wetting is another diabetes red flag, Cara Schrager, RDN, a certified diabetes educator at Harvard's Joslin Diabetes Center, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Diabetes in children is typically diagnosed after they have been potty-trained, so "bed-wetting is a big giveaway," she says. "If a child starts wetting the bed again, it's important to bring it up with their pediatrician."
Nausea and vomiting are particularly important signs to watch out for because they are symptoms of a rare but life-threatening diabetes complication called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).
Managing Your Child's Diabetes
One of the most important differences between children and adults with diabetes is day-to-day management, Quinn says. "As children grow, hormones — human growth hormone in particular — make them more resistant to insulin," she says. "Insulin dosages need to be adjusted quite regularly [to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range]." She adds that it's critical for children with diabetes to be seen regularly by a doctor, in order to keep their medication doses on track with their growth.
Read more: 7 Foods That Won't Cause Blood Sugar Spikes
Type 1 diabetes is typically treated through insulin injections. Type 2 is treated through lifestyle changes (including dietary changes and increased exercise) and possibly medication (including insulin), according to KidsHealth. No matter which type of diabetes your child has, it's critical to check their blood sugar regularly to make sure that their blood sugar levels are in the target range.
Uncontrolled diabetes can eventually lead to eye problems, nerve damage, kidney disease, high blood pressure and/or stroke, according to the American Diabetes Association. This may sound frightening, but the good news is that these complications can be avoided through proper diabetes management. Therefore, though it may be challenging at times, it's very important that you as a parent help your child learn how to manage his or her own diabetes. After all, at some point, it will be your child's responsibility to manage his or her own health.
You can empower your child by helping him or her create healthy habits for life — habits that include checking blood sugar regularly, taking medication properly, exercising, eating diabetes-friendly meals and scheduling regular doctor appointments.
Is This an Emergency?
- Yale School of Medicine: "Blood Sugar"
- Stanford Children's Health: "Hypoglycemia in Children"
- KIdsHealth: "Treating Type 2 Diabetes"
- American Diabetes Association: "Diabetes Complications"
- Kaiser Permanente: "How Our Bodies Turn Food Into Energy"
- Mayo Clinic: "Type 1 Diabetes in Children"
- CDC: "Type 2 Diabetes, Who's at Risk?"
- Genetics Home Reference: "Type 1 Diabetes"