A child sitting on a couch checking their blood sugar levels.
Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in childhood and adolescent years.

Understanding Childhood Diabetes

About 11% of the general population will be affected by diabetes. While that number might not sound like much, it accounts for over 33,000 school-aged Canadian children each year. How can you tell if your child might have a risk for childhood diabetes or not? Let’s take a look.

What Is Childhood Diabetes?

Childhood diabetes is often type 1 diabetes, previously called juvenile diabetes. This condition means your child’s body is unable to produce insulin, an important hormone for blood sugar regulation. Without insulin, sugar does not leave the bloodstream into the body’s cells. As a result, blood sugar levels climb higher and higher.

Usually, type 1 diabetes is easily treated through blood sugar management and insulin use. It frequently appears during adolescence or childhood, but it can also arise at any point in life.

Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, is not as typical in children. This type of diabetes frequently arises due to lifestyle choices, such as unhealthy eating, lack of exercise and excess weight. In type 2 diabetes, insulin does not function properly. Again, this means that your body’s cells are unable to take the sugar from the blood for use. Usually, it is managed through lifestyle changes and sometimes medications.

For the sake of this article, we will focus mostly on type 1 diabetes, since this type frequently impacts children more often.

The Signs and Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

The common symptoms of type 1 diabetes:

  • Increased urination or thirst (which may result in bed-wetting in some children)
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability or other changes in behavior
  • Increased hunger
  • Blurred vision
  • A fruity smell to their breath

Often, parents are encouraged to look for the four “Ts” associated with diabetes. These include toilet, thirsty, tired and thinner, which are all associated with the above symptoms. If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, book a visit with your doctor’s office. They will determine and diagnose whether or not your child has diabetes.

Why Does Childhood Diabetes Happen?

Unfortunately, the exact cause of type 1 diabetes is not known. It has been theorized that the body’s own immune system attacks the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, causing sugar in the blood to accumulate, therefore causing a lack of insulin. It may also be caused by genetics, viruses, or environmental factors.

Interestingly, type 1 diabetes often appears at certain ages in adolescence and childhood. Most commonly, it happens either between the ages of 4 and 7 or 10 and 14 years of age.

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Management of Childhood Diabetes

If you notice any of the common signs and symptoms in your child, your doctor will likely conduct a diagnostic test. This often involves some form of blood test, which indicates blood sugar levels.

From there, treatment will often involve the taking of insulin, diet management, blood sugar monitoring and maintaining a healthy diet and an active lifestyle. Ideally, blood sugar levels should be kept at 80 and 130 mg/dL (4.44 to 7.2 mmol/L) before meals and under 180 mg/dL (10 mmol/L) about two hours after a meal.

The type of insulin used may also vary according to your doctor. There is short-acting (regular) insulin, rapid-acting insulin, intermediate-acting insulin and long-acting insulin. Your doctor will determine what is best for your child’s health. Usually, the insulin is administered via an injection or a pump.

If at any point your child begins to experience sweating, shakiness, lightheadedness, blurred vision, or a rapid heart rate, this is a sign of low blood sugar. Ensure they eat digestible carbs or juice. This can avoid the situation from getting out of control. If this does not help, seek out medical attention immediately, especially if they begin experiencing confusion, convulsions, or poor coordination.

Preventing Childhood Diabetes

Unfortunately, type 1 diabetes is not preventable. However, type 2 diabetes is entirely preventable. Either way, you should encourage:

  • Maintenance of a healthy weight. Overweight or obese children are more at risk of developing diabetes.
  • Getting regular exercise. Regular physical activity can help reduce the odds of experiencing insulin resistance. It can also prevent various other chronic diseases.
  • Eating a healthy and balanced diet. Avoid feeding your children too many sugary beverages, meals, or snacks. Instead, include a variety of foods in your child’s diet to guide them toward optimal health as adults.

These factors can also apply to children who have already been diagnosed with diabetes. By maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and eating healthy, it can help your child manage their condition better.

Moving Forward After a Diagnosis

While receiving a diagnosis of diabetes is always a tough situation, it is entirely manageable. Ensure you do not let your own emotions get the best of you and that you are there for your child throughout the process and inevitable changes. Your child may be scared and confused. The best thing you can do is support them and help them understand the situation in the best way possible.

Furthermore, teens in particular may begin to feel frustrated and uncooperative. Again, ensure they understand how serious the situation is and help them create a schedule for eating and insulin administration.

Your family or children may also benefit from seeking out support groups or organizations. It can help both you and your child to talk and interact with others who are going through a similar journey. You are not alone! Find a local group or organization in your area today.