Growing bodies need extra nutrients to develop. Unfortunately the human body doesn’t produce everything it needs to grow and maintain healthy bodily systems. Experts agree that a balanced diet should in theory provide all the nutrients your child needs to grow big and strong. But what happens when parents are faced with lacklustre eaters, selective diets (gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian, vegan…), allergies or children that just don’t get enough sunshine outdoors?
Despite best efforts, there are essential vitamins and nutrients that the body might not be getting. Child-specific supplements can be a great option to help round out the nutrients your child needs to support proper development.
In order to decide whether to start your child on vitamin supplements, it’s important to understand what nutrients their bodies need for healthy development. It’s also important to know how much of these nutrients they are getting from the food they’re consuming.
The British Nutrition Foundation says that children should be eating a mix of vegetables, fruits, protein and whole grains that provide key building blocks for different bodily systems. Below are the most important vitamins and nutrients children need:
Vitamins A is key for normal growth, healthy skin, vision, and tissue repair. Yellow and orange vegetables, liver, and dairy products are all packed with Vitamin A.
Vitamin B12 and other B vitamins are essential for brain development, cognitive function, and nervous system health. B12 is naturally found in animal-based products like fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy products. They are generally not present in plants or non-fortified plant-based foods.
Vitamin C helps form and repair red blood cells, tissue, and bones; helps wounds heal; supports the immune system; and helps the body absorb dietary iron. The best natural sources of Vitamin C are brightly coloured fruits and vegetables like oranges, guava, bell pepper, papaya, tomatoes and broccoli.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium in order to build strong, healthy bones and teeth. It is also important in maintaining a healthy immune system. Our bodies naturally make Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to the sun’s UVB rays. It is also found in fatty fish like tuna, mackerel, and salmon; beef liver and egg yolks.
Fibre is essential for digestive health, fuelling the cells in the colon. It keeps our bowel movements healthy and regular. Fibre occurs naturally in whole grains, potatoes, the skins and flesh of fresh fruits and vegetables, and beans.
Protein is essential for growth, repairing and maintaining the body. It contributes to building healthy muscles and tissue, and helps the body create hormones, enzymes, and other bodily chemicals. Protein is found in lean meats, dairy products, eggs, beans and soya products.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fats are used for energy, cell growth and the production of some hormones. Olive oil, oily fish, fatty meats and nuts are all great sources of these healthy fats.
Calcium is important for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth. Dairy products, leafy green veggies and calcium-fortified foods are all good sources of calcium. It’s important to know that Vitamin D plays a key role in helping the body absorb calcium so it can be used properly within the body.
Iron is essential for transporting oxygen around the body and maintaining healthy blood. Iron-rich foods are things like lean meats, wholegrain cereals, dried fruit, and nuts.
Zinc plays a critical role in a range of biological processes. It supports everything from cell growth to metabolism. It is also a key nutrient for supporting the immune system. Meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, eggs, and dairy products are good sources of zinc.
Omega-3 fatty acids are important for immunity, hearth health, fetal development, and especially important for brain development. The body cannot create its own ALA (a key element in Omega-3s) so it must be obtained from food sources. Great sources of Omega-3s are fatty fish; walnuts; seaweed and algae; and chia, hemp, and flax seeds.
Probiotics are often described as ‘good bacteria’. They help restore and maintain the natural balance of digestive nutrients in the gut. They also help to support the immune system. Probiotics can be found in fortified foods like milks and yogurts, but are also available in kid-friendly supplements.
You can read more here to find out the best sources of these different essential nutrients and serving sizes.
Picking the Right Children’s Vitamin
Picking the right vitamin supplement for children can be challenging, especially when faced with so many colourful, chewy, favourite-character-shaped options. It’s important to take into account all the ingredients in the supplement, not just the vitamins themselves.
Things like sorbitol, aspartame, sucralose, or artificial flavours are sometimes added to make supplements ‘more palatable’.
However, sorbitol is known to cause digestive problems. Aspartame and sucralose are artificial sweeteners used in things like sugar-free gum and colas. Meanwhile, artificial colours and flavours are linked to all kinds of problems from hyperactivity to allergies and even aggression.
Fortunately, organic and natural supplements are made from wholefoods, with no synthetically manufactured additives. Companies like Garden of Life create tasty children’s multivitamins from certified organic sources.
Children generally require smaller amounts of specific vitamins and nutrients. As such it’s important to follow the dosage information on the label. Too high a dose of certain vitamins can cause more harm than good, especially in a growing body.
As a general rule you want to make sure your multi doesn’t exceed 100% of the daily recommended value for your child’s age bracket. The only real exceptions to this are water-soluble vitamins, like Vitamin C; and Vitamin D, which Public Health England (PHE) found most children don’t get enough of anyway.
Especially in the autumn and winter, vitamin D levels tend to plummet. The skin naturally produces vitamin D from sun exposure and since most children spend less time outdoors in colder months.
A 2014 study determined that British children between 12-18 months old were only getting 55% of the RDI of Vitamin D. While children 18-35 month were only getting 33% of the recommended daily intake. Even more alarming were the findings in older children, with 19.3% of boys and 20.4% of girls markedly below the adequacy threshold.
Vitamin D deficiency in children affects bone development, making bones softer, weaker and more prone to malformation. In fact, for the first time since the Victorian times, doctors are seeing an increase in a condition known as rickets. Rickets is characterised by bone pain and skeletal deformities like bowed legs, curvature of the spine, poor growth, and dental problems. It is completely avoidable with adequate vitamin D and calcium intake.
During periods of rapid growth the body has an increased need for iron. Iron is essential for producing hemoglobin, a protein which carries oxygen in the blood. A lack of sufficient iron can lead to shorter attention spans, headaches, weakness, learning difficulties, irritability or even iron-deficient anemia.
A 2014 study determined that iron intakes in children 12-18 months were only 93% of the required intake and children 18-35% were only getting 96% of the RDI.
The recommended daily iron intake for children ages 1-12 years is 7-10mg. For adolescent boys the RDI is 11mg, and adolescent girls require 15 mg. It is important to note that if you believe your child may be iron-deficient speak to your GP rather than self-diagnosing as too much iron can be problematic.
Selective diets open the body up to a higher risk of key vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Anyone following a vegetarian or vegan diet is at a higher risk of being B12 deficient as Vitamin B12 comes predominantly from animal-based foods.
However, as low B12 is a known issue for vegetarians and vegans, some animal product substitutes are B12-fortified. It can also be taken as a supplement.
When should you start your child on vitamins?
The UK government recommends a vitamin supplement anywhere from 6 months to five years. If you’re already battling with your child over what they will or won’t eat at the dinner table, it’s probably a good idea to make sure they’re taking a daily multivitamin.
How early you start giving your child vitamin and mineral supplements depends on their diet. If they are drinking a follow-up milk formula, it will already contain the nutrients they need for healthy development.
Ultimately, we all want to ensure that our children grow up healthy. As the body grows and matures, it goes through periods of stress that often require more of certain nutrients.
Think of daily vitamins as an insurance policy for your child’s health––where diet may not be providing, the vitamin supplement is there for nutritional support.
With a daily boost of important vitamins like A, B12, C, D, Calcium, Iron, and Zinc, you can keep your children healthy as they grow big and strong.