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Vitamin D: what does it do and why do babies need it?

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There is a lot of talk around the importance of vitamin D, not only during pregnancy but also when for your baby after the birth. But why is it so important for the on-going health of your baby, and how do you know if your baby is getting enough?

Why is vitamin D so important?

Vitamin D helps up to absorb calcium and is essential for strong bone and muscle growth. For adults, a lack of vitamin D has also been linked to some types of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.

Children need vitamin D for bone growth and development. It is also important that pregnant women to have enough vitamin D, as it is needed for the development of babies in the womb.

What if my baby is not getting enough?

Vitamin D deficiency in babies and young children can result in rickets, a disease that causes soft weak bones. This only occurs in growing bones and is preventable. A lack of vitamin D can also lead to delayed motor development, muscle weakness, aches and pains and fractures. An unborn baby who is not getting enough vitamin D can result in having low birth weight, developing rickets, seizures or run the risk of not thriving.

How do we get vitamin D?

Most of our vitamin D, approximately 90%, is absorbed from the sun. Most children get enough with normal outdoor activities. However as exposure to the sun can be dangerous, resulting in sunburn, skin damage, even skin cancer, this needs to be balanced with adequate sun protection. Children with darker skin take longer to absorb vitamin D and need up to six times more sunlight than those with fairer skin.

The remaining 10% of vitamin D is absorbed through diet. Foods such as oily fish (mackerel, salmon, herring and sardines), eggs and meat as well as fortified breakfast cereals, margarine and milk are all good sources of vitamin D. And all baby formula is also fortified with vitamin D.

Which children run the risk of vitamin D deficiency?

There are specific reasons for running the risk of being deficient in vitamin D such as:

  • children with darker skin
  • children who stay indoors and are rarely exposed to the sun
  • babies born prematurely
  • breastfed babies who have one or more of the above or whose mother is low in vitamin D
  • children with conditions that affect how the body controls such as liver disease, kidney disease and conditions that cause problems absorbing food such as cystic fibrosis and coeliac disease
  • children who take certain medicines such as epilepsy medicine.

Does sunscreen prevent vitamin D absorption?

We know that too much exposure to the sun is dangerous and that we need to protect our little ones from harmful rays with sunscreen, hat, sunglasses and protective clothing. However, many parents are concerned that by applying sunscreen, they’re preventing their children from absorbing enough vitamin D.

According to Raising Children, it’s very difficult to completely cover every part of your child’s body with sunscreen. There will always be some areas left allowing for vitamin D to be absorbed, so it shouldn’t be an issue. Absorbing vitamin D through a window is a different matter. This is generally not possible since most windows block the UV rays that are needed for this process.

If you’re at all worried about your child vitamin D levels, or if you’re pregnant and low in vitamin D, then have a chat to your GP or healthcare professional.

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