Could Your Child have a Vitamin D Deficiency?
Vitamin D is a nutrient that doesn't get the attention it needs, and is often outshone by the ever-popular vitamin C and skin-enhancing vitamin E. But recently, vitamin D made an appearance in the news, and will undoubtedly start getting the respect it deserves. Doctors conducting a study at New York Hospital Queens found that around 14 percent of children are not getting enough vitamin D. African American children are at greater risk, with 50 percent of teens displaying the vitamin D deficiency.
This is making a lot of people think twice about the nutrition their babies and children may or may not be taking in. A vitamin D deficiency might lead to the bone-softening disease rickets, as the nutrient is essential for calcium absorption. This is why you generally see "Vitamin D" on milk labels.
Signs of Vitamin D deficiency include, but are not limited to:
- Frequent Flu or Respiratory Problems
- Muscle Weakness
- Bones Break Too Easily
- Excessive Thirst
- Trouble Sleeping
- Trouble Focusing
- Frequent Hiccups
- Gum Disease
Getting Vitamin D
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children should take 400 International Units (IU) of vitamin D daily, beginning as early as a few days after birth and continuing into the teen years. Previously, 200 IU per day was the recommended dosage. Infants who are fed primarily on breast milk might be at greater risk for rickets. While breast milk is traditionally the best nutrition for new babies, the AAP is now saying that it may not contain the necessary amount of vitamin D.
As children get older, continued vitamin D intake can lessen the risks for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases. It is a challenge for diet alone to provide the desired amount of vitamin D, and so sunlight becomes the best and most natural way to promote your body's own vitamin D production. Ideally, everyone would get 15 to 30 minutes of uninhibited sunlight several times in one week (people with darker skin may need even more than that). This means no sunscreen.
If you are nervous about spending even a small amount of time under direct sunlight, help your body create its own sunscreen: Eat a lot of antioxidant-rich food, such as berries (acai, pomegranate, and blueberry, just to name a few) and leafy green vegetables. Extra amounts of these foods can allow you to enjoy the sun, without getting burned!
Vitamin D Needs By Age
So how do you make sure that everyone in your family is getting the proper amount of vitamin D? The first step is to talk to your doctor and pediatrician, and ask their advice on each individual's needs. This will vary with children's ages.
- Make sure that you take your prenatal vitamins, and ask whether or not an additional vitamin D supplement is needed.
- Ask your doctor about eating fish while you're pregnant. Some fish, such as shark, swordfish, tuna steak, mackerel, and canned albacore tuna, have too much mercury in spite of their vitamin D content. One or two weekly servings of pollock, catfish, salmon, tilapia, shrimp, or clams are better options.
- If you breastfeed, ask your doctor about supplementing your infant's diet with vitamin D drops. Understand that breastfeeding is still ideal for your baby. Extra vitamin D is simply another way to support a child's health early on.
- If you use formula, make sure it is vitamin D enriched.
- Sun, in spite of its ability to help the body produce vitamin D, is not recommended as a safe vitamin D source for babies.
Childhood and Teen Years
- Provide foods that are rich in vitamin D, such as milk (low-fat and fat-free milk are often still fortified with vitamin D), bread, fish, eggs (with the yolks), and orange juice.
- Encourage 15-30 minutes of sun exposure several times a week, if possible. Sunlight helps the skin to produce vitamin D. There is some disagreement about using sunscreen during short periods of sun exposure, with some experts believing that sunscreen inhibits the vitamin D production. We suggest speaking with your own health care professional.
- If you are concerned about your child's vitamin D levels for any reason, speak with their pediatrician.
- No matter how old you are, getting enough vitamin D through foods like eggs, dairy, seafood, and whole grains is still important.
- Consider taking a multivitamin if you feel you need to supplement your diet.
The increasing cases of obesity among American children add to the fear of vitamin D deficiencies. Overweight children are already at risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension, and lacking vitamin D can only make the problem worse. Let's give vitamin D its due, and benefit our children at the same time. Get out there and soak up some sun!