There is a growing awareness that many children from infancy through adolescence are vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is important for kids' bone health and balancing calcium in their bodies.
Q: What is vitamin D and why do our children need it?
A: Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. It helps children absorb dietary calcium and phosphorus. If kids do not get adequate vitamin D through fortified foods, supplements or time in the sun, then they may be at risk for vitamin D deficiency, which can cause rickets in infants and osteomalacia, a softening of the bones, in teenagers. If severe enough, it can be associated with low calcium levels and may cause seizures.
Q: How do clinicians screen for vitamin D deficiency?
A: A simple blood test can detect it.
Q: Who should get screened?
A: Screening is recommended for infants with poor growth, gross motor delays and unusual irritability, dark-skinned infants and children who live at higher altitudes during winter months. Children taking medications known to lower vitamin D levels or who have chronic diseases that prevent absorption of vitamin D should be screened. Children with a low dietary intake of vitamin D who do not take supplements, and children with elevated serum levels of alkaline phosphatase should also be considered. I consider screening obese children and adolescents with symptoms of mood disorders, low energy or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Q: How much vitamin D does my child need daily and what can I do to prevent vitamin D deficiency?
A: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ranging in age from infants including those who are exclusively breast fed to adolescents should have a minimum daily intake of 400 international units a day beginning a few days after birth. Other expert panels have recently increased their recommendation to 600 IU/day.
To reduce the risk of vitamin D deficiency, it is imperative for our children that we provide proper nutrition and exercise opportunities to prevent obesity. They should be drinking 16 to 24 oz of vitamin D-fortified milk per day. Larger intakes of milk can cause constipation and anemia. Sun exposure helps with preventing vitamin D deficiency but needs to be balanced with the risk for skin cancer. Infants less than six months of age shouldn't be in direct sunlight and older kids should follow proper sun safety.
Q: How do I get my child tested for vitamin D deficiency?
A: If you are concerned your child may be at risk for vitamin D deficiency I encourage you to have a discussion with your child's doctor.
Shassetz is a pediatrician at Sutter Gould Medical Foundation in Modesto.