Explaining Type 1 Diabetes

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Learn more about how to explain a type 1 diabetes diagnosis to your child.

Diabetes 101

What is type 1 diabetes?

  • It is a disease that attacks your child’s pancreas and destroys important cells called beta cells.
  • The beta cells stop making insulin.
  • It is the second most common chronic illness in children.

What is insulin?

  • Insulin is a hormone made by the beta cells in the pancreas.
  • It allows sugar (glucose) to enter the body’s cells to give them energy.
  • Your child needs this energy to think, play and work.

What happens without insulin?

  • Sugar (glucose) is not able to enter the body’s cells to give energy.
  • The sugar builds up in your child’s bloodstream.
  • The blood sugar will go higher. Things will start to happen that are dangerous to your child’s health.
    • Your child’s body begins to break down fats to get energy (since the body isn’t getting energy from sugars).
    • Fat breakdown causes ketones.
    • High levels of ketones in the body will make your child very sick.
    • The kidneys try to send the extra sugar in the blood out of the body in urine.
    • This pulls water from the body and causes your child to urinate.
    • Your child will drink and urinate more as the blood sugar increases.
    • This leads to dehydration.

What is the treatment?

  • Insulin by injection is the only treatment for type 1 diabetes.
  • Insulin injections will replace the insulin your child no longer makes.
  • There is no pill form of insulin.
  • Meal planning and exercise also help control diabetes.

How did my child get type 1 diabetes?

  • The exact cause is not known.
  • There is a genetic (hereditary) risk.
  • There is also an unknown trigger that causes the beta cells to die.
  • You and your child did not cause this.
  • There is no way you could have prevented it.

How will diabetes affect my child’s life?

  • Your child is still the same.
  • Your child can still do everything they used to do. This includes:
    • School
    • Sports
    • Driving a car
    • Going to college
    • Having children in the future

What is type 2 diabetes?

  • The blood sugar is high but for different reasons.
  • Insulin is still made by the pancreas, but does not work well (insulin resistance).
  • People who are overweight, not active and have diabetes in their family are at risk for type 2 diabetes.
  • Meal planning, exercise, pills and insulin injections are used to control type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes daily care

  • There are diabetes tasks you and your child will need to do every day.
  • You will receive a daily schedule to guide you.
  • This involves:
    • Checking blood sugars at least four times each day
    • Giving injections of insulin before each meal/snack and at bedtime
    • Eating healthy meals and snacks
    • Exercising daily
  • Your child needs to wear medical alert identification at all times.
  • We will teach you and will be here to support you.

Why does my child need to wear a medical alert identification at all times?

  • In an emergency situation, paramedics can provide the right treatment to your child.
  • Have your child wear a bracelet or necklace.
  • An infant or toddler should NOT wear a necklace because it is a choking hazard.
  • Have your infant or toddler wear a bracelet or a medical alert ID on his shoe.
  • Put a medical alert on your child’s car seat in case of a car accident.

Will my child have to go to the hospital more often?

  • Most children are only admitted to the hospital when first diagnosed.
  • Your child will not be sick more often than other children.
  • Your child should not miss more school than other children.
  • Your child will not have trouble fighting infections.

Can my child have children in the future?

  • Yes, your child can have children.
  • Pregnant women with diabetes are watched closely by their obstetricians to prevent problems during the pregnancy.

What are the chances of my other children or grandchildren getting diabetes?

  • There is a 1 in 20 chance of a brother or sister getting diabetes.
  • There is a 1 in 20 chance your grandchild will get diabetes.

What is good diabetes control?

  • Blood sugars in target range most of the time (70% to 80% of the time).
  • Your child and family take care of the diabetes while continuing to do the things they have always done.

Ideal blood sugar ranges

  • Below are ideal blood sugar ranges for before meals:
    • Younger than 6 years: 80 to 180
    • 6 to 12 years: 70 to 165
    • 13 years and older: 70 to 150
  • Aim to keep the blood sugar in range most of the time.
  • Staying in range most of the time helps keep your child healthy.

What is the normal blood sugar range for people without diabetes?

  • Blood sugars that are 70 to 110 before meals are normal for people without diabetes.
  • It is not possible for someone with diabetes to always have blood sugars in this range.

What is the “honeymoon period?”

  • Right after diagnosis, your child’s pancreas may still be making a little insulin.
  • The amount of insulin given by injection will be lower.
  • It is easier to control blood sugars during this time.
  • The honeymoon may last several months to two years.
  • When it is over, the blood sugars will go higher and your child will need more insulin.

What is my role as a parent of a child with diabetes?

  • Learn how to become the best manager of your child’s diabetes. At first, you will contact the Diabetes Center at CHOP if there is a situation new to you or you have questions. Eventually you will know how to do a lot yourself.
  • We will help you learn how to make decisions about food, exercise and insulin.
  • Always make sure your child has diabetes supplies.
  • Always make sure that your child’s diabetes care is done.
  • Always make sure your child wears a medical alert identification.
  • As your child gets older, help them learn to manage their diabetes independently.

What is my child’s role?

  • They should help you by doing what they are able to do at their age.
  • A young child may choose the finger for blood sugar tests.
  • A school-aged child can learn to count carbs and record blood sugars in the log.
  • An older child can learn to give injections.
  • A teen can learn to put all the pieces of diabetes care together. However, parents still need to supervise their teens.
  • Your child/teen must always wear a medical alert identification.

Find out what to expect from your child at different stages of development.

What is the role of the Diabetes Center?

  • We will teach you how to take care of your child’s diabetes.
  • We want you to become the expert in their care.
  • In the beginning, we will walk you through all the decisions.
  • As you learn more, you will make the decisions about your child’s diabetes care.
  • As you become more confident, we will support your decisions.
  • You can check in with us when what you have tried hasn’t worked.
  • We will teach you how to manage your child’s diabetes during sickness or when they has ketones.
  • We will help you prepare your child for independent diabetes management as they get older.

How often will we see our diabetes team?

  • Plan to bring your child to appointments every three months.
  • Plan to attend more education classes over time.
  • At times, you may need other appointments for nutrition or family support.

Next Steps
Appointments and Referrals
girl testing blood sugar

Tools to Manage Diabetes

These resources will help your child and family manage blood sugar testing, highs and lows, insulin, nutrition, and more.

young boy smiling

Life With Diabetes

Review our information about support and coping, school, teen topics, and general well-being.