Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that a growing child’s body needs to help absorb calcium and phosphorus, which are important for healthy bones and teeth.
Vitamin D mostly comes from summer sunlight as well as certain foods.
Not getting enough vitamin D has led to some children in the UK developing the rare bone disease rickets. Rickets was common during Victorian times but mostly disappeared in the 1940s.
Even if children get enough calcium from their diet, including through milk and yoghurt, without enough vitamin D, calcium cannot be properly absorbed.
Vitamin D also regulates cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function and reduction of inflammation.
Vitamin D from the sun
The British climate may be responsible for some vitamin D deficiency. 90% of vitamin D intake comes from exposure of the skin to sunlight. Between October and March, there’s not enough UVB radiation in autumn, winter and early spring sunlight.
The body can store up vitamin D over the summer months, but the amount of UVB radiation necessary to produce vitamin D also depends on a child’s skin colour.
Those with lighter complexions need less sun exposure than those with darker skin. Some children may have less exposure to the sun because their skin is covered for cultural reasons. Others may miss out because of having to stay indoors or in hospital due to medical conditions.
A balance is important between getting children out on the sun enough for their vitamin needs while making sure their delicate skin is protected from sun burn or over exposure.
Experts advise exposing the skin to regular, short periods of sun during the summer months, without sunscreen, which blocks UVB rays. There is no official recommendation for time limits, but a short period unprotected in the sun can be around 10 to 15 minutes for most children. After that, the normal sun protection measures are needed. These include covering up and using sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
Vitamin D from food
Vitamin D occurs naturally in some foods, including oily fish and eggs, and is added to some foods such as spreads and breakfast cereal.
Breastfed babies get their vitamin D from their mother’s breast milk, so it is also important for breastfeeding women to get enough vitamin D themselves. Pregnantand breastfeeding women are advised to take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D for the needs of the mother and growing baby.
Vitamin D from supplements
The Department of Health recommends supplement drops containing vitamin D for babies and children from six months to five years old.
This will give them their daily requirement of 7-8.5 micrograms of vitamin D.
Infant formula is fortified with vitamin D, so babies who have formula won’t need vitamin drops until they have less than 500ml (around a pint) of infant formula a day.
Check with your health visitor or GP if you have concerns.
If a breastfeeding mother didn’t have vitamin D supplements throughout her pregnancy, a health visitor may say the baby needs vitamin drops from one month old.
Women and children may qualify for free supplements containing vitamin D under the Healthy Start programme. Age-appropriate vitamin drops are also available from pharmacies and supermarkets
Are you one of those who believe plain milk is enough for your child’s nutritional needs? Have you ever thought about your child’sVitamin D levels? These findings are an eye-opener
Mark ‘yes’ if these situations are relevant to your child:
1. Your child barely plays out in the sun.
2. Off late your child tends to get tired easily & seems listless at times.
3. Your child complains of pain in his joints without reason.
If your answers are predominantly ‘yes’, then this recent 11-city survey conducted by Ipsos Research will be an eye-opener for you. The purpose was to understand the level of awareness about Vitamin D among mothers – whether they considered it important enough for their child, the misconceptions about it and the harm that would befall the child if they are found to be Vitamin D deficient. The response from the 2000 mothers who were spoken to for the survey, threw up some compelling insights.
First the good news. General awareness levels among the mothers were high: most of them correctly mentioned sunlight as a source of Vitamin D. They were aware that lack of this vitamin would result in weak bones in children. The good news however, ended there!
More worrisome were several startling disclosures, viz:
-Only 50 per cent of the mothers were aware of the crucial nutritional link between calciumand Vitamin D.
-Only 14 per cent mothers felt their children were calcium-deficient. The majority of them believed the milk they were providing their children was enough to store up Vitamin D levels in the body.
-Their awareness about other sources of Vitamin D (fish, fish liver oils, egg yolk, fortified dairy and grain products) was also very low.
-They didn’t know that apart from weak bones, lack of Vitamin D also results in skin-related issues, tooth cavities and poor concentration levels.
-Majority said they give milk daily to their children and in addition also provide them fruits, milk food drinks (MFDs) and interesting home-made food. Most mothers preferred MFDs over plain milk and also felt the quantity of milk their child was consuming was sufficient for calcium absorption.
So what lessons and questions does this insightful survey throw up? For starters, there is an urgent need to shore up awareness levels among mothers because most of them feel that the source of Vitamin D is restricted largely to absorption of natural sunlight. The truth is that this vitamin can be and needs to be made available to children in many other ways as well, given the kind of lifestyles many of them lead. Mothers also need to be educated about the health hazards that calcium deficiency leads to, and the right quantity of milk that needs to be consumed everyday for calcium absorption in the body.
The findings of the survey should prompt you to stop, take note and become more aware. After all, it is awareness that leads to empowerment.
This is the first of a 10-part series that will focus on the importance of Vitamin D for children. Keep watching this space for more
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