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Vitamin D for Babies

Is your baby getting enough Vitamin D? Find out why this nutrient is so important and where you can get enough of it.
foods containing Vitamin D: eggs, salmon, sardines, yogurt, butter

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When your baby was born you were probably given a sample of Vitamin D drops and instructed to give them to your baby… but were you told WHY they were important?

One mom scanned the ingredient list and was freaked out by the addition of caramel colour. She decided to forego giving the drops altogether. She’s quoted as saying “I just couldn’t bring myself to willingly give my baby ingredients it felt like I was trying so hard to avoid.”

Thankfully there are brands in which the Vitamin D is suspended in an edible oil, and nothing else so concern about additional ingredients is a moot point.

And thankfully we’re here to explain to you why it’s so SO very important to ensure your baby gets enough Vitamin D!

What is vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a vitamin that acts like a hormone. Hormones are messengers that are made in one part of the body and deliver a message to another part. Hormones stimulate an action to occur! Recent research show that there are Vitamin D receptors on nearly EVERY cell in the human body!

Side note: mamas, we alllllll full of hormones, ain’t we? #nojoke

Why does my baby need Vitamin D?

When Vitamin D was initially discovered, we learned that it was necessary for the proper development and maintenance of bones. Vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb calcium. They go hand in hand! Children severely deficient in Vitamin D develop a condition called rickets, in which the bones don’t fully harden. Children with rickets often become bow-legged when they start to walk, thus putting pressure on the bones.

More recently, research has shown that Vitamin D plays a key role in the immune system, nervous system, muscle function, cancer prevention, auto-immune disease prevention, and cardiovascular health… just to name a few! Some research conducted in our hometown of Winnipeg has actually shown that supplementing pregnant women in their third trimester with Vitamin D can help prevent that baby from having tooth decay later on! So cool.

xray of leg bones

Where can I get Vitamin D for my baby?

For babies up to age 12 months, the minimum recommended amount to get each day is 400 IU. Let’s explore how you can get there! There are three ways to get Vitamin D:

  1. Sunshine
  2. Food
  3. Supplements

Sunshine as a Source of Vitamin D

field of yellow flowers with sunshine in background

Vitamin D is affectionately nicknamed the sunshine vitamin, because your body produces it when the skin is exposed to sunlight. But there are some really good reasons why we can’t rely on this.

  1. For Caucasian people it takes about 5-10 minutes of having your face and arms exposed to the sun, in order to produce enough Vitamin D for your daily needs. For others, the darker your skin, the longer the sun exposure you need.
  2. If you live North of the 34 latitude (roughly in line with Atlanta, Georgia) the sun’s rays are not strong enough between October and April to produce Vitamin D. That’s more than half the year!
  3. Your Vitamin D stores will only last 1-2 months, so getting a lot of sun in the summer will not be enough to get you through the winter.
  4. Sunscreen will block 95-99% of Vitamin D production. For protective reasons, we don’t recommend skipping the sunscreen in favour of getting Vitamin D!

As you can see… unless you live close to the equator and spend significant time outside every day without sun protection, you can’t count on the sun for you and your baby’s Vitamin D! On to the next source….

Food as a Source of Vitamin D

closeup of the grain of a cut salmon steak

There are few foods that naturally contain Vitamin D… with the emphasis on FEW!

Mainly….

  • Fatty fish is a good source, but a baby would need to eat at least 3 oz of salmon every day to reach the daily MINIMUM.
  • Beef liver is a minor source: a baby would need to eat 28 oz of beef liver to reach the daily MINIMUM. At that amount, you would be risking Vitamin A toxicity, so this is not a viable option. Side note: please don’t feed liver to your baby more than once a week due to high vitamin A content!
  • Eggs are a minor source: a baby would need to eat 9 eggs to reach the daily MINIMUM.
  • Mushrooms: very minor source… unless they’ve been exposed to sunlight. A baby would have to eat 5.7 kg of white button mushrooms or 1.5 kg of shitake mushrooms to reach the daily MINIMUM…yeah, not happening.

Unless your baby has a monstrous appetite, it’s safe to say that they won’t get it from naturally occurring food sources! However, there are some foods that have Vitamin D added to them, another word to call this is fortification.

  • Milk, has 100 IU/cup
  • Most milk alternatives: those that say FORTIFIED on the label have the same Vitamin D as cow’s milk, 100 IU/cup
  • Yogurt and cheese, again depending on whether they’re made with Vitamin D fortified milk or not
  • Breastmilk: varies depending on the mother’s Vitamin D status and intake. In general, unless the mother takes in a very high dose, the amount passed on to the baby via breastmilk is very little. Relying on a supplementing mama is not recommended because mama could be metabolizing Vitamin D inefficiently and then baby would not be getting an adequate amount.
  • Infant formula: 1 litre will provide about 400 IU

That list makes fortified dairy sound pretty important, right? Unfortunately, for other nutritional reasons it’s not recommended to give babies cows’ milk as their main beverage until 12 months of age and even then you’ll want to limit them to 2-3 cups of milk a day. At the most, they’d be getting 200-300 IU/day from milk.

We’ve made the case that you can’t rely on the sun, you can’t rely on food, so there’s really only one option left…..

Supplements as a Source of Vitamin D

In general we encourage people to get their nutrients from food if possible, rather than relying on pills. But Vitamin D is the exception! And, kinda our non-negotiable.

Again, the current dose recommendation put forth by the Institute of Medicine, and Health Canada, is

  • 400 IU/day for ages 0-12 months
  • 600 IU/day for ages 1-70 years

Is this enough?

The short answer? We just don’t know and it might depend on where you live and what colour your skin is!

Are people not getting enough time in the sun? Or not taking the recommended dietary dose? Is the recommended dose not high enough?

These questions are hotly debated in the world of nutrition. Here’s what we do know:

  1. The current recommended doses will result in a blood level of vitamin D that is sufficient to prevent rickets.

What is still left for debate:

  1. Would a higher blood level of vitamin D prevent cancer and autoimmune diseases?
  2. Would a higher blood level of vitamin D protect against the development of allergies?

Is Vitamin D Safe for my Baby?

Too much of a good thing does exist. At high blood concentrations Vitamin D can cause dangerously high levels of calcium in the blood (a condition called hypercalcaemia). Put forth by the Institute of Medicine, these are the SAFE MAXIMUM daily doses:

  • 0-6 months : 1000 IU
  • 6-12 months: 1500 IU
  • 1-3 years: 2500 IU

Are you giving enough Vitamin D for your baby?

We’ve prepared a series of questions for you to ask about your baby. If you answer yes to any of these questions, discuss with your pediatrician whether your child may benefit from a higher dose of Vitamin D.

jess and nita, registered dietitians
Meet Jess and Nita

Hi! We’re both Dietitians & boy mamas! We’re here to help you confidently raise kids who will grow up to be lifelong Happy Healthy Eaters. Dig into our site for kid-tested recipes & feeding tips. 

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