If your child is diagnosed with diabetes, there’s so much to get your head around – finding out what care is available and who’s going to provide it, that’s even before you think about insulin injections, managing blood glucose levels, let alone how they will cope at school.
If you’re unfamiliar with the condition, there are two types of diabetes. Type 1 is the most common one in children, and is where the body doesn’t make any insulin. Type 2, when the body makes some insulin but not enough, usually affects people over 40.
The main symptoms of diabetes are thirst, a constant need to urinate, weight loss and blurred vision. If this is something that concerns you, there’s more information about the condition on the BBC Health website, and you can get in touch with other families who are raising children with diabetes through the website Children with Diabetes in the UK.
Type 1 diabetes is treated by a healthy diet, regular physical activity and insulin injections. Children with diabetes need to inject themselves several times a day or go on an insulin pump (a device like a drip which is worn daily).
In the context of school, it’s vital to discuss this with staff and establish where and when the child injects themselves so that everyone is aware of arrangements.
Children with diabetes also need to be given time to test their blood sugars before and after exercise, so this issue should also be discussed with your child’s PE teacher.
Diabetes is life-threatening and a diagnosis can be traumatic, and there’s a trend for newspapers and magazines to stereotype children with severe illnesses as either ‘heroes’ or ‘just like everyone else’, but there are fewer reports on how tough life can be for them especially at school, or how sad they can feel. The myth that children get Type 1 diabetes because they’re fat isn’t helpful either.
Parents I’ve spoken to say the main challenge is that of keeping the condition stable, which requires huge organisational skills – starting with making sure your child has their kit with them at all times. This is hard enough for adults, never mind children who already struggle to remember their homework and packed lunch!
Managing diabetes and leading a normal life can be really hard, especially for young people. Unless they keep their condition stable they can suffer high and low blood sugars along with mood fluctuations.
The most important thing teachers need to know about diabetes is that the condition can cause hypoglycaemia, often called a ‘hypo’, which is when a person’s blood sugar levels drop dangerously low, and they need sweets, a fizzy drink or glucose tablet straight away, followed by a sandwich or cereal bar.
It’s worth checking out the Diabetes UK website, to find out what experiences other parents have of managing their child’s condition. Remember that if your child is diagnosed during the school year, you should discuss the condition fully with the school and how it will be managed with all the relevant staff at a school or prior to them starting at a new school.
One worrying development is that due to the budget squeeze on the NHS, the number of diabetic specialist nurses is now being cut. These nurses, who work in hospitals and in the community, do a vital job in advising teachers and supporting young people with diabetes. This means that parents and teachers need to be even more vigilant in making sure children are supported at school.
Alison Whyte is a freelance journalist.