The first few months of a baby’s life is a time of rapid growth and development – so it’s important they have enough vitamin D to help keep their bones and muscles healthy and strong.
What’s so important about vitamin D?
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that helps us absorb calcium from our diet. It plays a crucial part in building strong bones and muscles, as well as keeping our nervous and immune systems working properly.
Babies and young children have an increased need for vitamin D because they are growing and developing quickly. When a baby has a severe vitamin D deficiency their bones and muscles can become weak and don’t develop properly – eventually this leads to rickets, which is a bone disease that can result in weakened and deformed bones that can fracture easily.
Vitamin D the ‘sunshine vitamin’
Our skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunlight – this is our most important source of vitamin D, providing over 90% of what we need. There are some foods that contain high levels of the vitamin, for example, eggs and some types oily fish such as salmon, but generally food is considered a poor source of vitamin D.
Babies get their initial stores of vitamin D from their mothers during pregnancy and, as long as the mother is not vitamin D deficient, these built-up reserves will last for around 8 to 12 weeks. Breast milk contains lots of nutrients and energy a baby needs – but it does not contain much vitamin D. This means breastfed babies need to get nearly all of their Vitamin D from sunlight.
However, it is important to remember baby skin is very sensitive and can easily be damaged if exposed to direct sunlight – most babies will make sufficient vitamin D just from incidental sun exposure during everyday family activies.
Who’s at risk?
Babies are likely to have low levels of vitamin D if they:
- Have naturally dark skin
- They are not getting enough sunlight, e.g. most of their skin is covered up with clothes, they stay indoors for most of the time or live in regions that get less sunshine (such as the more southern parts of Australia – particularly in the winter)
- Have a medical condition that affects vitamin D absorption, e.g. cystic fibrosis, coeliac disease or inflammatory bowel disease
- Were born prematurely
- They are exclusively breastfed by a mother that is vitamin D deficient and have at least one other low vitamin D risk factor.
Signs to look out for
Vitamin D deficiency does not always have obvious symptoms, but here are a few things to look out for:
- A slowdown in their growth and development
- Being irritable from bone or muscle pain
- Tired or week muscles
- Late teething
- Deformed bones (e.g. bowed legs) – which start to occur when vitamin D levels are very low.
Serve vitamin D deficiency is rare in Australian babies. However, your doctor may prescribe daily vitamin D supplements if they think that they are needed for your baby.
If you are concerned your child is at risk of developing vitamin D deficiency or rickets, it is important that you contact your health care professional.