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Nutrition for the Child with Sickle Cell Anemia

Contributors: Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN and Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD

Published: November 10, 2021

Reviewed: October 21, 2021

Nutrition for the Child with Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell disease, also called sickle cell anemia, is a genetic red blood cell disorder that causes blood cells to take on a sickle or crescent shape. In the U.S., sickle cell anemia is most common among Black and Latino Americans. People with sickle cell anemia often experience episodes of pain, fatigue and frequent infections. Sickle cell anemia is associated with vitamin D deficiency and poor appetite. Both can lead to delayed growth and development in children and can result in a need for a higher amount of certain nutrients, including calories and protein.

Vitamin D works with calcium to help your child build strong bones. Consuming vitamin D-fortified milk and getting adequate active play time outdoors can help to strengthen bones. Children with darker skin may be more likely to be vitamin D deficient. Discuss vitamin D with your child’s healthcare provider and whether a supplement is needed.

Calcium and vitamin D are important for your child's growth and development, but other nutrients are needed, too, so good overall nutrition is essential. Keep these tips in mind to maximize your child's nutrition:

  • Make good nutrition a family affair so your child isn’t left drinking milk while everyone else has a soft drink.
  • Eat from a rainbow of fruits and vegetables and pair them with whole grains, and protein foods (such as eggs, fish, chicken, meats, beans or tofu and nuts or seeds).
  • Get plenty of calcium-rich foods and beverages such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Other sources of calcium include leafy green vegetables and calcium-fortified products such as soymilk and tofu, as well as some types of breakfast cereals and 100% fruit juices.
  • Provide nutrient-rich, high energy foods including dried fruit, nuts and nut butters, or smoothies if your child doesn't have much of an appetite. Sauces, gravies and sources of fat may also be added to meals and snacks for extra calories.
  • Encourage plenty of fluids, especially water, to help prevent dehydration and constipation.
  • Forgo sugar-sweetened beverages for milk or calcium-fortified 100% orange juice, which provide essential nutrients to help with your child’s growth.
  • Discuss vitamin D testing and supplementation with your healthcare provider. While sun exposure, fatty fish, fortified milk and some cereals provide vitamin D, it often is difficult to replenish vitamin D with food alone.

Understandably, it may be easier said than done. Busy families may find cooking at home to be challenging. Enjoying a meal together as a family is important, especially for a child with a chronic illness.

Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to better understand your child's unique nutrition needs and identify quick and healthy meals that will work for the entire family.

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