Does your child get enough vitamin D in their diet? Probably not, according to several different doctors and health organizations, who within the past year have come out with numerous recommendations that parents up their children’s vitamin D intake. The most recent recommendation: On October 20, 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out and stated that all children should be given a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IUs.

Why Vitamin D is Important

A problem that pediatricians thought had been solved with the vitamin D fortification of milk, cereal and other foods; vitamin D deficiency is once again emerging as a significant health risk in children. In a June 2008 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Health, Dr. Catherine Gordon and her colleagues at the Children’s Hospital in Boston tested toddlers for vitamin D intake. They found that 40% of toddlers tested below average levels. A previous study by Dr. Gordon among adolescents found that 42% of the older kids were deficient as well. “Vitamin D deficiency was twice as common in teens as we assumed it would be,” she stated, adding that research from her and others has shown it to be a bigger health problem than anyone ever realized.

The potential adverse health consequences of not getting enough vitamin D are numerous:

  1. A deficiency in vitamin D can cause a child’s bones to be half of the density they should be.

  2. It affects bone structure and growth.

  3. Weak teeth and dental erosion can be caused by a vitamin D deficiency.

  4. It can lead to rickets.

  5. Not enough vitamin D has also been linked to an increased risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, heart attack and diabetes.
  6. Vitamin D is a building block for hormones and it strengthens the immune system, so lack of it can disrupt these systems.
  7. Vitamin D helps regulate sleep-wake cycles, so lack of it can disrupt your sleep patterns.

The Causes of Vitamin D deficiency

Several factors are leading to this condition. Children are consuming more junk food and less milk and other vitamin D rich foods. The childhood obesity epidemic is contributing to the problem as well, as fat cells trap vitamin D, preventing it from being absorbed into the vital organs. But the biggest problem is a lack of sunlight. The body can store vitamin D from foods and vitamin supplements, but unlike other vitamins, it requires ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun in order to metabolize it into a form that the body can actually use. More pollution and greater use of sunscreen (SPF 15 blocks 99 percent of UVB light), along with the unfortunate fact that children are spending less and less time outside, is leading to major deficiencies in vitamin D. Estimates are that worldwide, around a billion people are either at risk of becoming or are already vitamin D deficient.

What Parents Should Do

  • Start your children on a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IUs. Such supplements are available at any local grocery store. Just don’t overdo it. Too much D can stress internal organs and lead to dangerously high levels of calcium in the blood.

  • Doctors recommend that parents have a blood test done during their child’s next check-up to determine whether or not your son or daughter has any major deficiencies. They may encourage a more stringent plan depending on what they find.

  • Promote a balanced diet with your children. The best foods for natural vitamin D are Salmon and tuna fish, followed by vitamin D fortified milk, yogurt, or eggs. (Note: breast milk is not vitamin D rich, and with recommendations to keep babies under 6 months out of the sun, this can cause deficiencies. Consult your doctor for further recommendations.)

  • Most of all make sure your children get some sun time each and every day. Experts advocate that children get around 15 minutes of direct sun exposure every day before putting on sunscreen. Preferably this should be full body exposure, as in a bathing suit. If changing your kids into their bathing suit for 15 minutes seems like a hassle, just strip them down to their underwear or even nude if they’re comfortable with it and have them run around the backyard for a while. You’ll ensure they get sun exposure and promote healthy attitudes about their body at the same time. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the clock. Anything beyond 15 minutes and those precious UVB rays start to cause sunburns, so break out the sunscreen.

Keep in mind, if you live North of Atlanta, the human body is going to be challenged to produce vitamin D from October until about March. In the winter months when the sun is lower in the sky, most UVB rays are screened out by atmospheric ozone. However, “Sensible sun exposure in spring, summer, and fall will probably last a few months into the winter,” says Michael Holick, a doctor at Boston University’s School of Medicine and author of the book: The UV Advantage. The key is to get children active and outdoors more.