Why Vitamin D for Kids is Vital

By: Brian E. Black, MD

Small girl drinking a glass of vitamin D fortified milk

Forty years ago, Dairy Management Inc. launched a national advertising campaign telling us that milk “does a body good.” The goal was to sell more milk of course, but this was a moment of truth in advertising. Milk is loaded with calcium and it is fortified with vitamin D. Together the nutrients are essential for healthy bones.

Our skeleton is a living system. Bones are rigid organs that produce blood cells and store minerals. One of the essential minerals found in bones is calcium, which is key because it is responsible for hardness and strength. Calcium can’t do its job alone; it needs vitamin D.

Found in sunlight, food, and supplements, vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium from the intestines and then stores it in fat. Without enough vitamin D, people can suffer from a higher risk of osteoporosis, an increase in fractures, and rickets—which is a disorder that can cause soft, misshapen bones.

Vitamin D: A Bone-Building Block for Kids

We need vitamin D throughout our entire lives, but it is especially important during childhood and adolescence. “Once thought to be an inevitable part of aging, osteoporosis is now considered to have its roots in childhood when preliminary preventative efforts can be initiated. In fact, bone mass attained in early life is thought to be the most important modifiable determinant of lifelong skeletal health,” writes the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Vitamin D intake is so critical for children that in 2011, the Institute of Medicine published a landmark report with revised recommendations on how much vitamin D kids need each day based on their age group. Babies should get 400 international units (IU) and children between the ages of one and 12 should get at least 600 IU daily.

It is important to note that breastmilk does not contain enough vitamin D to support healthy bone development in babies. Babies who are exclusively or partially breastfed should regularly take a supplement, which can be prescribed by a pediatrician or purchased over the counter.

Additionally, vegans who do not consume fish, dairy products, or eggs should consider a vitamin D supplement, especially if they live in regions with limited sunlight.

Taken as a supplement, oral Vitamin D is fat-soluble. To ensure proper dietary absorption, vitamin D should be ingested with dietary fat like avocado, 2% or whole milk, or peanut butter.

Finding Vitamin D Naturally

The top foods that are abundant in vitamin D include:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Egg yolks
  • Mushrooms
  • Canned tuna
  • Cod liver oil
  • Foods fortified with vitamin D

Unfortunately, many of these foods are not overly common in our diets. This is why foods such as cow’s milk, orange juice, and oatmeal are fortified with vitamin D. And while your skin can absorb vitamin D from the sun, winter months, restrictive clothing, and sunscreen—all essential for skin cancer prevention—can limit the benefits.

If your child is small, they likely can’t or won’t eat most vitamin D foods. Babies are also often shielded from the sun to protect against UVA and UVB rays. As a result, it’s possible for kids to develop a vitamin D deficiency. In this case, supplements will be prescribed by a physician.

However, most healthy growing kids older than one who eat a diet rich in nutrients and safely play outside in the sunshine a couple of days a week typically do not need to take extra measures. It is important, for parents to be mindful of the role of vitamin D so that they can monitor and ensure their child is getting the right amount.

The symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency include bone pain, muscle aches, and weakness. Patients can also suffer from mood swings and depression.

It is rare, but it is possible for a person to get too much vitamin D, which can be toxic. The symptoms of Vitamin D toxicity, also called hypervitaminosis D, include nausea, loss of appetite, bone loss, high levels of calcium in the blood, excessive thirst, and kidney failure.

If you or your child are experiencing symptoms or are concerned that you are not getting enough or too much vitamin D naturally, talk to your doctor immediately. Your doctor will conduct a blood test to see if your child’s vitamin D levels are on track. If you are seeing an orthopedic specialist for problems associated with an imbalance of vitamin D, you will be guided on how to address both the vitamin deficiency and a course of treatment for the related issues. Often times it is an orthopedic specialist who reveals the vitamin imbalance.

What About Older Kids?

Vitamin D is essential for kids as they grow, but the need continues through adulthood. There is a greater awareness for infants and small children to get enough vitamin D, but the need for older kids is just as great. Vitamin D also plays an important role in the function of the immune system, which matters a lot as kids develop their own social lives and are exposed to increased levels of viruses, flu, and other contagious illnesses.

For kids who enjoy sports and as they mature are practicing and competing with more intense schedules, vitamin D is needed to maintain the proper function of muscles as well as bones. Kids over the age of 12 should get between 600 and 1000 IU of vitamin D every day.

“During the first two decades of life, the skeleton grows in both size and density, and it is estimated that more than half of peak bone mass is acquired during the teen years,” reports the National Institutes of Health. In fact, we continue to accumulate bone mass until we are 30 years old.

In summary, the more we care for our bones through childhood and early adulthood, the healthier we will be as we age. By managing our calcium and vitamin D intake, we will lessen our chances of suffering devastating breaks and developing osteoporosis. If you have any questions about your child’s vitamin D intake, please contact me.