Vitamin D is a chemical our children’s bodies need to keep them in good health. The vitamin is important for strong bones and bodies and helps to fight off infection. Vitamin D also plays a role in keeping the brain, lungs, heart, and muscles in good working order. But how much vitamin D should we be giving our children?
Our bodies manufacture vitamin D when we are exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D, in fact, is the only vitamin that the body produces on its own. Every other vitamin is absorbed only through the foods we eat or through supplements.
Vitamin D is also unique in that it is the only vitamin that is transformed into a hormone by the body. Some people call this hormone activated vitamin D or calcitriol.
It’s important to note that the sun isn’t the only way to make vitamin D. The vitamin can also be absorbed from food sources. The problem is that vitamin D is only available from food in small amounts. The good news is that vitamin D, like any other vitamin, can also be taken as a supplement.
Reasons For Vitamin D Deficiency
Some of us, including our children, can’t get enough sunlight to make vitamin D. People with dark skin, for example, may not absorb enough sunlight to make good amounts of this vitamin. Those who live in cloudy places with little sunshine may not get enough sun to produce an amount of vitamin D sufficient for good health. Others wear head coverings or cover their bodies with clothing for religious reasons. Covering up can make it difficult for the body to get enough sunlight to make a healthy amount of vitamin D.
In some cases, not getting enough sun is about our greater awareness of sun exposure as a risk factor for skin cancer. This means that even when our children are out of doors, we are careful to smear them with lots of sunscreen. Sunscreen not only limits the amount of sun our children get, it also limits the amount of vitamin D they can absorb from the sun.
It’s also true that children, in general, aren’t spending as much time out of doors. This is the age of technology. That means that instead of spending time in the sun, children are more often found indoors, spending time on their computers and other devices.
Finally, for some children, not getting enough vitamin D is a medical issue. There are medical conditions, for instance, kidney disease, that can keep children from absorbing nutrients. This too, can result in not having enough vitamin D in the body.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Whatever the reason, when there is not enough vitamin D in the body, this is called a Vitamin D Deficiency. A blood test can show whether or not your child has a vitamin D deficiency. If your child is deficient in vitamin D, he or she can take vitamin D supplements as drops or pills. But be careful. Taking too much vitamin D can be dangerous.
The reason you have to be careful in giving your child vitamin D supplements, is that the vitamin is fat-soluble. As fat-soluble vitamins make their way through the body, the body tissues hold and store these chemicals. That means that fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D remain inside the body. If your child takes more vitamin D than he needs, levels of the vitamin may build to high, or even toxic (poisonous) levels in the body.
That’s why it’s important to give your child the correct amount of vitamin D. But here’s where it gets a little tricky: the experts don’t all agree on the “correct” amount of vitamin D for children.
For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers a conservative recommendation that all infants, children, and adolescents, take a minimum of 400 IU of vitamin D daily, beginning soon after birth. This is far from the maximum amount a child can safely take. Which means that your child may need more–even much more–vitamin D. This being the case, what’s a mama (or a papa) to do?
The answer is simple: Ask your child’s doctor and go with what he says. You trust him/her. That’s why you chose him to be your child’s doctor. And your child’s doctor knows your child’s specific needs. So ask him what he thinks and go with it. There is no doubt your child’s doctor is keeping up with the latest research and will have a good firm opinion on the matter of vitamin D dosage and safety.
While you’re at it, ask your doctor whether it’s safe for your child to go out in the sun without sunscreen for a period of time each day. A skin doctor advised this writer that it’s safe to go out in the sun for 15 minutes without sunscreen on a day that is not terribly hot. If your doctor feels that it’s not safe to go out in the sun without sunscreen and without a hat for any period of time, your next step is to go with getting vitamin D into your child’s diet (and into your own) by way of foods and supplements.
Vitamin d supplements come in both drops and pills, so they are appropriate for all ages, including for children. As for foods, look at labels when purchasing orange juice, milk and other dairy products, soy milk, cereal, and bread. Many of these foods are fortified with vitamin D. That means that the manufacturers add vitamin D to these foods. Fatty fishes, such as salmon and mackerel contain vitamin D, as do beef liver and egg yolks. Keep in mind, however, that the Vitamin D Council, does not believe it possible to get enough vitamin D from food sources.
The Critical Role of Vitamin D
Every day, there is new research to tell us of yet another condition in which vitamin D plays a critical role. Sufficient vitamin D increases the survival rate of breast cancer patients. Low levels of the vitamin are implicated in carpal tunnel syndrome in young women. Vitamin D supplements help menopausal women build muscle and can improve outcomes for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). We are still learning about the important role vitamin D plays in protecting our bodies and fighting disease.
There is no doubt that our children need vitamin D. The only question is how much. All we can do as parents, is to play it safe and ask a physician for a recommendation–and then continue to ask again, as our children go in for their regular checkups. The recommendations for vitamin D are changing all the time.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published Oct 28, 2015 and has been completely revised and updated for accuracy and scope.