Pharmacy shelves might be stocked with tons of dietary supplements marketed toward children, but that doesn't mean they're necessary (or safe) for your kids.

By Alena Hall
September 27, 2019
Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (3)

We grew up in the age of Flintstones multivitamins: We chose from three bold colors, expected them to taste like candy, winced at their medicinal smell and sandy texture, and hid them between the couch cushions when our parents weren't looking. And that was pretty much it, as far as dietary supplements went.

We can't say the same for our kids today. Sure, they have access to Flintstones multivitamins, too, but the list doesn't stop there. Countless companies today produce dietary supplements for children (many of which reach beyond the scope of a daily multi) and market them so effectively that parents and kiddos alike struggle to resist their enticing wellness claims. They make gummies, sour gummies, taffy-like chews, powders, and drinks—labels boasting they'll provide crucial vitamins, help kids sleep, and reduce their stress—and each one tastes better than the next. It's a supplement-laden world, and our kids are living in it. In fact, at least a third of children in the United States today take a dietary supplement of some kind.

However, just because all of these new products are overwhelming pharmacy shelves doesn't mean you need to buy them for your family. Here's what every parent needs to know about dietary supplements when it comes to the health of their children.

Health Risks of Supplements for Kids

According to Katie Lockwood, M.D., a primary care pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, many parents are led to believe that supplements are safe because you can buy them over the counter and no need for a visit to the doctor for a prescription. However, research is limited on the majority of these products, especially as it relates to child consumption. "Also, just because something says it is 'natural' does not mean it is 'safe,'" Dr. Lockwood said.

Natalie Muth, M.D., RDN, a pediatrician and author of Family Fit Plan, added that over-the-counter dietary supplements also lack regulation from the Food and Drug Administration or any other governmental agency. "There's no guarantee that you're actually getting the ingredients you think you are when you take a supplement," she said. What's more, many studies show that vitamins and supplements are oftentimes contaminated with other products that could pose additional health risks.

Similar to adults, some children have adverse reactions to various dietary supplements when others seem to fare just fine. For instance, Natasha Burgert, M.D., FAAP, a general pediatrician who practices in Overland Park, Kansas, has seen kids get headaches, stomach aches, and even diarrhea just from taking a daily multivitamin. They might not be harmful to most children, but you do run the risk of side effects (not to mention an added expense to your family budget) when you decide to buy them. "I also think they make really expensive pee," she added, seeing as much of these supplements is ultimately eliminated via children's urine.

When Supplements Can Be Beneficial

Ayelet Goldhaber, RD, MS, a registered dietitian at Hassenfeld Children's Hospital at NYU Langone Health, prefers for her patients to get as much nutrition as possible from food because it's easier to absorb nutrients from food than from supplements. But there are some specific cases where she and other pediatricians and registered dietitians agree that dietary supplements can be both safe and helpful for children under the appropriate medical and parental supervision.

  • Multivitamins: Dr. Muth mentioned that children who follow a vegan lifestyle can benefit from taking a multivitamin because it can help ensure that they don't miss out on vital nutrients for growth and development like vitamin B12.
  • Vitamin D: During the winter, Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City, recommends that most children take vitamin D3 because we usually get it from the sun, and we're not as exposed to sunlight in the colder months. "Research is coming out on how important it is for general wellness," she said, "It's a difficult nutrient to get through food."
  • Probiotics: According to Goldhaber, when a child is coming off of using antibiotics, getting over a stomach bug, or struggling with diarrhea or constipation, a probiotics supplement can be really helpful for a brief period of time. But once their healthy gut bacteria has been replenished, there really isn't much need to continue taking them.
  • Fish Oil: There's solid research on the connection between omega-3 fatty acids and child brain development, said Shapiro. And let's face it, a lot of kids don't eat a ton of fish. "I think it's a good one to supplement if they aren't getting it through food," she said.

Supplements to Avoid

On the flip side, there are several dietary supplements gaining widespread popularity today that probably shouldn't end up in the mouths of children (unless they have a preexisting condition that their physician is actively treating with a specific supplement).

  • Melatonin: Despite its ability to help children relax and fall asleep at night, Dr. Burgert said there's increasing evidence that it could be a hormone disruptor and that it's not working in kids the way we think it is. Rather than depending on these supplements, Shapiro suggests helping your child build healthy sleep habits and routines that they can then maintain for the rest of their lives. If you are concerned about your child's sleep habits, speak to their pediatrician before turning to a supplement.
  • CBD: Plenty of parents have jumped on the CBD trend, giving it to their children in an attempt to solve hormonal or behavioral problems, according to Dr. Burgert. However, it's highly unregulated and recent testing has found samples with increasing amounts of active tetrahydrocannabinol (the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis) in them. If you are curious about CBD for your child, speak to their pediatrician or seek out a doctor who is educated in the use of CBD for certain conditions.

The Bottom Line

It's very easy as a parent to perceive a problem that doesn't actually exist, Dr. Burgert said. We often reflect our adult health values and ideas onto our children, which leads us to believe they're being undernourished. So instead of rushing to the pharmacy to browse the supplements aisle for a quick fix, here's what you should do.

Think about the big picture.

Look at your child's diet over the course of a week instead of the course of one day, suggests Shapiro. "Generally speaking, your child is going to consume enough of the good things they need over the course of a week, but on a particular day, they might be tired or just not hungry," she said. If the nutritional scales balance over that period of time and your pediatrician says your child is doing well on the growth chart, there's no need to reach for an extra supplement.

Learn about nutrition with your kids.

Invest in food education for both you and your child. "Helping kids learn about and understand where our nutrients should be coming from is really important so they can learn how to fend for themselves and start meal planning, get more involved in their food, and really enjoy their food," said Goldhaber. "Helping kids find meaning in their food is key." And the more they understand and appreciate what food can do, the less likely they will be to depend on any form of dietary supplement. Dr. Muth agreed, saying, "Almost always children can get all of the nutrients they need for healthy growth, development, and muscle building from whole foods."

Talk to your child's doctor.

Still worried that your child isn't growing according to pediatric recommendations or that their nutritional needs are somehow not being met? Schedule an appointment with your pediatrician and pediatric registered dietitian, and have an open conversation about your concerns. Together, you'll be able to identify whether a nutritional deficiency exists and needs to be treated via a new meal plan, supplementation, or a combination of the two. No matter what, always talk with your health care providers before giving your child a new supplement.

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