Dr. Alan Greene on Kids and Vitamins

When and why to start supplementing your child's diet.

Question

How important are vitamins to children? When should you begin giving your child vitamins?

Answer

Vitamins are, by definition, compounds necessary in trace amounts for the normal functioning of the human body. Are they important? They are vital. We need vitamins in order to see the world around us, to grow, to make bones and connective tissue, to fight infections and cancer, to heal wounds, to stop from bleeding to death, and to keep our teeth from falling out.

Why Is Vitamin Supplementation Needed?

We are not self-sufficient. We depend on a steady supply from outside sources for these vital compounds. Vitamins cannot be manufactured in sufficient amounts by the body, and must be taken in from the environment. They occur naturally in many foods (vitamin D is manufactured by the body in response to sunlight exposure -- 15 minutes a week is all that is needed). Vitamins are also available as commercial nutritional supplements.

While I have great respect for the results of modern nutritional analysis, I have greater respect for the long-standing relationship between humans and their natural foods. By eating whole foods (fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains, etc.), your child can get the necessary vitamins in the healthiest way. Vitamins occur in foods in forms that are the easiest for the body to use, and accompanied by important related compounds. One of the challenges of parenting is to make eating these whole foods as pleasant an experience as possible.

Even though many children have periods when they are quite picky eaters, most children get the minimum known requirements for vitamins from the foods they eat. Nevertheless, we live in an age of highly processed foods. Even our fruits and vegetables are often grown using agricultural techniques that minimize the vitamin and mineral contents. Thus, I like giving children multivitamins as supplements to the vitamins they get in their food.

Getting Started with Vitamins

For most children who began eating solid foods by 6 months, I would begin adding a vitamin supplement at the first birthday. Before then, most children either receive infant formula or breast milk. Infant formulas already contain vitamin supplements, and while some believe that breast milk fails to provide adequate amounts of vitamins A, C, and D for young infants, I believe that breast milk is an ideal human food, and that our knowledge of nutritional requirements is lagging.

Often children in the toddler and preschool years are picky eaters. As children grow, their tastes change and over time they should begin to eat a well-rounded diet. A vitamin "safety net" takes the pressure off of feeding issues during the early years. Without pressure or worry, you can be free to be creative about increasing whole foods in your child's diet, knowing that vitamins are present to help your child grow strong and healthy.

Vitamins are a perfect example of "more is not better!" While most vitamins are essential in trace amounts, excessive amounts can be unhealthy.

 

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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