When Your Child Has Type 1 Diabetes

When a child has type 1 diabetes, it means his or her pancreas doesn't produce insulin. Without this hormone, the body can't use glucose, or blood sugar, for energy. It builds up in the blood and eventually can damage internal organs, nerves, and blood vessels.

Learning that your child has type 1 diabetes can be a shock. Suddenly, your world may seem to revolve around managing the condition. You may feel overwhelmed and unsure of what you can do to help.

With knowledge, practice, and a supportive health care team, however, you can take care of your child without diabetes taking over your lives.

Understand testing and insulin

Sound diabetes treatment is based on your child's blood sugar levels. These levels should be tested several times a day. To do this, select a reliable blood glucose meter that’s easy to use. Your child’s health care provider may be able to offer advice on choosing and using one.

Your child also needs to receive insulin regularly. That means your child will need several shots a day or will wear an external pump around the clock. Learning to give injections or use a pump may seem daunting. With practice and help from your child’s health care provider, you -- and eventually your child -- can master either technique. While you will have to learn how certain activities (such as exercise or sports) and situations (such as an illness or special meal) affect blood sugar levels, there is no reason why your child can't live a normal life and do nearly everything he or she wants to do.

A healthy menu

Knowing what and how much your child eats -- and when -- helps determine his or her insulin needs. But, you don’t have to serve special foods. The best choice for your whole family is a healthy, well-balanced diet that's low in fat, salt, and added sugar.

Is there a dietitian on your child’s health care team? If this service is not offered to you, consider finding your own dietitian and making an appointment. He or she may be able to help you learn how to create healthy eating plans and count carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are starches and sugars, including whole-grain breads, beans, oatmeal, fruits, and hard candy.

Encourage physical activity

Your child should get 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise a day. Once your health care provider has given the OK, sign your child up for a summer sports league, go for family bike rides, or have your child walk the dog. Because exercise may make your child's blood sugar level drop, you need to test it before he or she starts an activity, and during exercise if the session is longer than an hour. (This could occur, for instance, during a game or sports practice.) You should also check your child's blood sugar in the hours after exercise.

Hypoglycemia

Hypoglycemia occurs whenever your child's blood sugar is too low. It can be caused by too much insulin, too few carbohydrates being eaten, or too much sugar being burned off by exercise.  This is most likely during and after exercise, and overnight, for example, during sleep.

These are symptoms of hypoglycemia during the day:

  • Weakness

  • Nervous feeling

  • Shakiness, or a fine tremor

  • Sweating

  • Headache

  • Hunger

  • Unconsciousness

  • Seizure

These are symptoms of hypoglycemia at night:

  • Damp pajamas and sheets

  • Nightmares

  • Restless sleep

  • Headache upon waking

  • Tiredness upon waking

  • Unusually high blood sugar reading in the morning

You can determine whether your child has nighttime hypoglycemia by waking him or her at 2 or 3 a.m. for several nights and checking the blood sugar level. If the level is too low, treat the low blood sugar at that time, but be sure to tell your doctor. The doctor may make changes in insulin dose or the timing of meals.

Make sure your child carries a snack at all times to treat hypoglycemia. The following foods contain 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrates, enough to treat the condition:

  • Juice box of orange or grape (1/2 to 3/4 cup)

  • 2 to 4 pieces of hard candy

  • 5 gumdrops

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons of honey

  • 6 ounces of regular, nondiet soda (about half a can)

Helping a child cope with a chronic illness, such as type 1 diabetes, can be stressful for all family members. Consult with your health care provider if your child, your family, or you need additional support managing your child's physical and emotional needs.