Pediatricians are reminding parents that vitamin D is essential for healthy bones. But it can be a tricky vitamin to get enough of. Here’s how to make sure your child is getting her share.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

Calcium is probably on your radar when it comes to your kids and their bone health. But here's something else to think about: Vitamin D. Parents need to know how important this vitamin is and make sure their kids are getting enough, according to a new resource for parents from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

You may already know that vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. But the fact is, the body can only absorb the bone-strengthening mineral when there's vitamin D present, according to the resource published in JAMA Pediatrics. Kids build bone throughout their childhood and adolescence, so getting enough of both calcium and D is critical during that time. In rare cases, kids can fall so short in vitamin D that they develop a condition called rickets, when bones become weak and soft and their legs appear bowed.

Beyond bone building, researchers are also studying whether vitamin D plays a role in the prevention of diseases like cancer and heart disease (though the National Institutes of Health says there's not enough evidence to show cause and effect).

Kids and teens need 600 IU of vitamin D per day. (And according to the AAP resource, there's no evidence that getting mega-doses of D has any health benefit.) Unfortunately, few foods are naturally rich in vitamin D. A three-ounce serving of salmon contains all the D kids need in a day, but the same serving of canned tuna has less than half. Eggs contain a small amount of D (in the yolk) but kids would need to eat about 10 a day to meet their daily needs. Mushrooms naturally contain vitamin D and some are treated with UV light to boost the vitamin content (white button mushrooms and "Baby Bellas" are the kind most commonly treated, but check the Nutrition Facts Panel to see if there's extra D).

Fortified foods like milk, yogurt, cereal, and orange juice may seem like a more manageable way to help your child get his daily D. A cup of fortified cow’s milk contains about 130 IU of vitamin D; a cup of fortified orange juice has 142 IU. Check the labels on the cereal and yogurt you buy to see if they’re fortified.

Luckily, children can also get vitamin D through exposure to sunlight, because the sun converts a chemical in the skin to an active form of D. According to the AAP, even if kids wear sunscreen (which they should!), many will get enough sunlight in their day-to-day lives to produce enough D.

But if you live in a cloudy climate or have long winters and aren't outside very much, and if you feel like your child’s diet is lacking in D, talk to your pediatrician about supplements (including a basic multivitamin that contains D).

Babies who are fully or partially breastfeed should get 400 IU from vitamin D supplements (in the form of drops) until they're fully weaned and drinking milk that's fortified with D, according to the CDC. Breast milk does not contain sufficient vitamin D to meet babies' needs.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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