Did you know that 12-18 June is Diabetes Week? Many people think of diabetes as a condition that hits later in life as a result of poor life choices. But there’s another form of diabetes that can affect children and young people.
Sadly, many children only find out they have the condition after a serious health crisis, but with early diagnosis, it could be tackled much sooner. So what exactly is childhood diabetes and what should you do if your child is diagnosed?
What causes diabetes?
Diabetes is caused by a problem with the body’s ability to produce insulin. In a healthy body, insulin helps to manage the level of sugar in our blood, so we have a steady supply of energy. When insulin production is disrupted, blood sugar levels dip and spike. This can cause a dangerous ‘hypo’ when the body begins to shut down and we lose consciousness.
There are two types of diabetes: Type 2 occurs later in life and is usually caused by an unhealthy lifestyle (e.g. not enough exercise, eating sugary foods etc.). But Type 1 diabetes is generally diagnosed in children or young adults, and is caused partly by genetics and partly by environmental factors.
If diabetes isn’t treated properly, it can lead to serious problems with the heart, kidneys, eyes and nervous system. So catching it early and managing it well are very important.
What are the symptoms of diabetes?
Diabetes UK outlines the ‘4 Ts‘ as a useful way of recognising the symptoms of diabetes:
- Toilet – frequently needing a ‘wee’
- Thirsty – a relentless thirst
- Tired – persistent and abnormal tiredness
- Thinner – unexplained weight loss
If your child has the symptoms of the 4Ts, it’s worth booking a check-up with your doctor.
How is childhood diabetes treated?
Kids with diabetes need regular insulin injections. Their blood sugar level will need constant monitoring, such as before a meal, at bedtime, before and after exercise (because exercise uses more energy). They’ll also need to eat regularly to keep blood sugar levels steady.
How to come to terms with a diagnosis of childhood diabetes
The first few weeks after diagnosis can be very traumatic for a child and also for the rest of the family. Maybe it happened after a health scare, so a young child might be afraid they’ll fall ill again. Getting used to a regime of insulin injections can also be frightening, and having to stay on top of blood testing and regular meals can feel very restricting.
It’s essential to give your child freedom to express how they feel, whether that’s angry, afraid, resentful, depressed, or possible a huge mixture of emotions. Young children may find it difficult to understand what’s happening to them, whilst older kids may feel ‘different’ and perhaps worry they can’t carry on activities like their favourite sport.
Health professionals like a Paediatric Diabetes Specialist Nurse can give you help and advice, and perhaps put you in touch with local support groups where your child can meet others and ask questions.
Find out about support groups for parents too – many feel almost bereaved that their child has this life-long condition. They worry about their ability to cope with the stresses of giving medication, daily testing, managing a healthy diet etc.
How to manage childhood diabetes
Naturally, some aspects of your life will change. You’ll need to get into the routine of checking blood sugar, calculating the right dose of insulin and watching your child’s food intake. Most people find they eventually find the right balance, but try not to let all this dominate your life and your thinking – in time it will become more natural.
Of course, healthy eating is good for everyone, but for a child with diabetes it’s essential for them to eat the right kinds of foods to help keep their blood sugar steady and stay fit. Five portions of fruit and vegetables daily is always a good target, and this can be fresh, dried, canned or frozen, so you’ve plenty of choice.
Wholemeal foods are high in fibre, so kids will feel fuller for longer, and they also break down more slowly. This low-GI food releases its energy steadily so the blood sugar is better balanced.
But do allow the occasional treat. It’s a myth that people with diabetes aren’t allowed sweet things and we all need a little spoiling from time to time!
You may feel reluctant to let your child get too active because the body burns more fuel when it’s moving around, which alters blood sugar levels. But regular exercise is very important, because it reduces blood pressure, lowers cholesterol, helps balance blood sugar, and reduces the risk of obesity.
Getting kids into the habit of regular activity also set the foundations for a healthy adulthood. Athletes such as Olympic Gold Medallist Steven Redgrave, rugby player Chris Pennell, and footballer Ben Coker, all compete at the highest level while managing their illness.
Just be sure to check blood sugar levels before and after activity and keep some healthy snacks available in case they need a quick boost.
Diabetes UK has a wealth of information and support on its website. There’s information and videos for teens, child-friendly information for younger kids, and support for parents. They run regular workshops and holidays for kids with diabetes, and can put you in touch with your local group.
They’ve worked hard to raise awareness of how to manage diabetes in schools, including an information pack to support children, parents and teachers. They also fundraise and contribute to research.
Diabetes is a serious and life-long condition, but it’s not a life sentence. There’s no reason why you and you child can’t live a happy and fulfilled life. So accept all the support that’s available to you and you can all learn to enjoy life to the full.
Photo courtesy of Mario0107 at Pixabay