PCH Type 1 Children - What is Diabetes
A Parent's Guide to Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetics can have happy, healthy childhoods. But managing your child's diabetes will take effort from the whole family.
By Regina Boyle Wheeler
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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When a child is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, parents are often shocked and confused. “I was scared and sad. I was worried he would never go to school or eat birthday cake,” says Julie Abes of Alpharetta, Ga., whose young son has diabetes.
Parents wonder whether their child will grow up healthy. The answer is “yes,” if the diabetes is closely controlled.
“The first thing we tell parents is, you are not alone, your child is not alone,” says Sue Tocher, MS, RD, dietitian and diabetes clinical program coordinator at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Diabetes shouldn’t restrict them, it shouldn’t limit them.” But parents will need to incorporate changes into their child’s life, adds Tocher.
Type 1 Diabetes: What Is It?
Once known as juvenile diabetes, type 1 diabetes is usually first diagnosed in children and young adults, and is a lifelong condition. Each year, more than 13,000 new cases of type 1 diabetes are diagnosed in North America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In type 1, the diabetic’s pancreas produces little or no insulin. That’s a hormone the body needs to change sugar and other food into energy. Without insulin, high levels of fat and glucose (sugar) stay in the blood. Over time, this can damage blood vessels and vital organs. So to survive, and avoid serious complications like heart disease and nerve damage, people with type 1 diabetes need a comprehensive treatment plan that includes daily insulin injections.
Type 1 Diabetes: The First Steps
Abes’ 9-year-old son, Mitchell, was diagnosed when he was just 2. “It felt almost like having a newborn baby again — it was very overwhelming,” she says. “There is so much to learn.”
First, you and your child will have to get used to testing sugar levels and injecting insulin. Your child will also have to follow a diet low in fat and keep track of carbohydrates. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) suggests:
Your diabetes team will come up with a specific plan based on your child’s age and lifestyle. Parents will need to educate other caregivers to make sure they know what to do. It’s especially important to talk to your child’s school at the beginning of each year to make sure every teacher knows the details of your diabetes management plan, says Abes.
Type 1 Diabetes: Checking Blood Sugar Levels
Making sure your child’s blood sugar levels stay steady is essential to keeping her healthy. Your diabetes team will tell you what levels are normal for your child.
It’s important to stay at these levels. People with diabetes face two potentially life-threatening problems when levels dip too low or climb too high:
- Hypoglycemia.Too little sugar can cause hypoglycemia. Too much insulin, too little food, or too much exercise are likely culprits. Your child may be shaky, sweaty, or dizzy. Immediately give your child fruit juice, some hard candy, or glucose tablets. Act fast so your child doesn’t pass out.
- Hyperglycemia.Too much sugar — mainly due to too much food or too little insulin — can cause hyperglycemia. Your child might be very thirsty, need to use the bathroom a lot, or be sleepy. Give insulin, water, or sugar-free drinks. Insufficient insulin can cause acids to build up in the blood, causing a condition called ketoacidosis; this can lead to diabetic coma or death.
Type 1 Diabetes: The Teen Years
As they get older, children can slowly take more responsibility for their diabetes care. But parents are typically involved all the way through the teen years.
The adolescent and teen years are particularly challenging for type 1 diabetics. Like all children this age, teens with diabetes want to fit in. And that could lead to rebellion, including eating poorly and skipping injections. On top of that, hormonal changes can make teens’ bodies resistant to insulin, says Tocher. “So just when they need to manage the disease the most, they may be resistant to doing so,” she says.
Learning to drive is a teenage rite of passage. The JDRF recommends testing blood sugar levels before your teen gets behind the wheel, and that he drive only when his levels are normal. It’s also important to keep snacks in the glove compartment to ward off hypoglycemia.
Type 1 Diabetes: A Family Affair
Successful diabetes management takes planning and organization by the whole family, says Abes. “You have to stay on the ball. I am always asking, 'Is there juice in Daddy’s car?'” Daughter Amanda knows what to do if Mitchell shows signs of low or high blood sugar as well. “Everyone has to play a part in it,” Abes says.
Everyone in the Abes family plays a part in trying to find a cure, too. Every year, they participate in the JDRF’s Atlanta Walk to Cure Diabetes. In 2008, “Team Abes” raised ,000. Abes has cut back on her work as a speech-language pathologist and is now doing outreach and patient education for the JDRF’s Georgia chapter. “Diabetes took my life in a different direction,” she says.
Despite his diabetes, Mitchell lives the life of a typical third-grader. He goes to school and plays soccer and tennis. And, says his mother, with careful planning and monitoring, Mitchell can even eat birthday cake.
Video: Type 1 Diabetes | Ben's Story
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