Do Babies Really Need Vitamin D Supplements?
Vitamin D is crucial for bone, immune system and brain health. Learn why breastfed and formula-fed babies need this nutrient and how much you should give them.
When you’re loading up the cart with baby essentials, like diapers and wipes, make sure to throw in some vitamin D drops.
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A daily dose of vitamin D is important for your baby’s health for several reasons. Pediatrician Kylie Liermann, DO, explains why and how to give this vitamin to your newborn or infant.
Vitamin D is crucial for the health of your baby’s bones and teeth. “Severe vitamin D deficiency can lead to a brittle bone disease called rickets,” says Dr. Liermann. “Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and utilize it to form and strengthen bones. Without vitamin D, a child is more prone to fractures and growth problems.”
The body also needs vitamin D for brain development and immune system health. “Vitamin D is necessary for so many functions, and it’s hard to get enough without a supplement,” says Dr. Liermann.
We often hear that breast milk is a complete food, containing everything your baby needs. But tests have shown that breast milk is lacking in vitamin D.
“Infants should get vitamin D drops starting in the first few days of life,” Dr. Liermann says. “It’s especially important in breastfed babies because they get minimal, if any, vitamin D from breast milk.”
Infant formula contains vitamin D, but it’s not enough for younger babies. “Formula-fed babies need a vitamin D supplement until they are taking 32 ounces of formula every day,” says Dr. Liermann. “This usually happens after the first few months of life, but is different in every baby. Newborns, in the first few months of life, don’t consume enough formula to get the recommended daily amount of vitamin D.”
What if a breastfeeding mom takes vitamin D? Does that change levels in her breast milk?
“One study found that mothers could safely supplement 6400 IU/day and adequately supply their breast milk to satisfy the infant requirement,” says Dr. Liermann. “But mothers should discuss with their pediatrician to determine if this is the right option for them.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a daily intake of 400 IU for babies. Most infant vitamin D supplements contain this amount in one dose. But the dose could be different, depending on which brand of drops you buy.
“Some supplements have 400 IU in one drop, but others have 400 IU in a dropperful,” says Dr. Liermann. “Whatever supplement you choose, be sure it says it’s for infants. Follow the dosing instructions carefully. If you don’t know which kind to use, ask your child’s pediatrician.”
Our bodies make vitamin D when we’re exposed to the sun. So can you just spend time outside with your baby and skip the supplement?
“UV rays from the sun are damaging to the skin at any age,” says Dr. Liermann. “It’s better to take the supplement than to risk skin damage from the sun. When your baby is outside, cover them with a hat, clothing, or a shade over their stroller or baby carrier. Once they’re 6 months old, you can use sunscreen, but you should still keep them out of the sun as much as possible.”
Infant vitamin D drops are concentrated, so you only need a small amount to get 400 IU. To give it to your baby, you can:
Always use the dropper that came with the drops and fill it as prescribed. You may not need to fill the entire dropper.
Once your baby is drinking one liter of formula or fortified whole milk every day, they are getting enough vitamin D without drops. For formula-fed infants this could be within a few months of life but for infants who are exclusively breast fed this is not until they reach 1 year of age and are able to start drinking fortified whole milk. Ask your pediatrician when to stop giving your child vitamin D drops.
Vitamin D deficiency isn’t easy to spot in babies, partly because they can’t tell you how they’re feeling. And fatigue and muscle pain, symptoms of vitamin D deficiency, are common symptoms of several other conditions. In addition, signs of vitamin D deficiency may not show up until months or years later.
But doctors may check your baby’s vitamin D levels if your baby has:
“Don’t wait to see if your baby has symptoms of vitamin D deficiency,” Dr. Liermann says. “Supplement Vitamin D regularly to prevent deficiency. And if you have any concerns about your baby’s health, talk to your pediatrician.”