You may remember, as a child, gobbling your daily Flintstones vitamin as though it were candy—and it sure tasted like candy, didn’t it? But some would say kids’ vitamins pack the same value as a Skittle or a Lifesaver, since they pass through childrens’ systems without leaving much of a nutritional mark. Others maintain that vitamins and supplements are a valid way to supplement a healthy diet, while still others figure that doling out a fortified gummy bear every morning can’t hurt even it doesn’t help. For the 411 on kids’ vitamins (to give them or not? What kind? When?), here’s a 101.
A HEALTHY START
Taking vitamins shouldn’t start after Baby has made his or her grand entrance into the world. As explained by the American Pregnancy Association, “During pregnancy, a woman’s daily intake requirements for certain nutrients, such as folic acid (folate), calcium, and iron will increase.” Nursing mothers need that nutritional extra, too. A prenatal vitamin can help match this increased need, but moms-to-be should only take a vitamin recommended or approved by their OB-GYN, as certain vitamins and minerals, such as DHA, are vital for healthy fetal growth, while others need to be consumed only moderately.
VITAMINS FOR BABIES
Nothing man-made could ever duplicate the wondrous substance that is breast milk. But if there’s one thing formula has that breast milk often doesn’t, it is large amounts of vitamin D. Vitamin D helps build strong, healthy bones in children, and a vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets (a disorder that causes soft, weak bones). Breastfeeding is still the way to go, so many doctors—as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics—simply advise vitamin drops for nursing babies as a way to insure adequate intake of vitamin D. If you’re breastfeeding and your pediatrician doesn’t bring up vitamin drops, ask about it yourself (and make sure the doc specifies a dosage amount and whether or not to use drops that contain iron as well).
USE WITH CAUTION
HealthyChildren.org, an American Academy of Pediatrics website, maintains that “the body needs… vitamins in only tiny amounts, and in a balanced diet they are usually present in sufficient quantities in the foods your youngster eats. Thus, in middle childhood, supplements are rarely needed.” But the AAP does concur that in cases where a child may not consume an adequate amount of vitamins and minerals on his or her own—because of picky eating habits, allergies, or a vegetarian or vegan diet—then a vitamin supplement should be used.
Adults looking to bulk up on protein or build muscle guzzle sweet-tasting protein shakes, so can you use these concoctions to put some protein into your kids? In a word, no. Although there are protein shakes marketed to kids, LiveStrong’s website for kids’ health advises against them. “Since protein powders often contain high levels of fats, sugars and carbohydrates, as well as artificial colors and flavorings, KidsHealth advises kids to stick to whole food sources of protein.” Even picky eaters are usually happy to gobble up some eggs with cheese or peanut butter, two easy-to-prepare sources of protein. And you don’t want sweet shakes to take the place of healthy foods. “If you want to make your child a protein shake, add peanut butter or tofu instead of an artificial powder,” advises LiveStrong. As far as vitamins go, there’s a sentiment that the gummy variety, which may be especially appealing to kids, can lead to tooth decay. In an article titled “Gummy Vitamins, Rotten Teeth?” USA Today quoted a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association as warning that, “I will see children who have been cavity-free, and then they start eating these gummy vitamins, and boom, they have cavities within three months to a year.” Chewables may be a way to avoid that potential hazard. But when looking for the right vitamins, play detective with the ingredient list and consult your doctor to make sure you’re getting a vitamin that’s age-appropriate as well as packed with the right vitamins and minerals for your child.
WHAT’S RIGHT FOR YOUR KID’S DIET
Your child may not be a picky eater, but perhaps there’s something else about his or her diet that leaves you wondering whether vitamins may be in order. Maybe your child has a dairy or nut allergy, or is being raised vegetarian or vegan. Certainly, parents raising their kids vegan need to ensure that they are getting “nutrients vital for normal development,” reports the Today Show’s TODAYMoms’ nutrition expert Joy Bauer, citing “vitamins B12 and D, iron, calcium, zinc and protein” as necessary. But if your child is missing out on calcium because of a dairy allergy, for example, you can look for other, non-dairy calcium-rich foods (hello, kale chips!) and open up a dialogue with your pediatrician as to what type of vitamin might be beneficial, too.
While carefully choosing vitamins or supplements for your kids is fine, it shoudn’t ever be a substitute for a healthy, balanced diet. As many vegan parents already know, essential elements found in vitamins already exist in a surprising array of fresh, fun, and colorful foods. It’s not just broccoli and brussel sprouts—two veggies that may put off your kids—but also foods like nuts and legumes. Check out the USDA site ChooseMyPlate.gov for an updated take on healthy eating, and invest in some fun kids cookbooks to liven up the menu at home.