November 8, 2022

Vitamins for Kids: Do Children Really Need Supplements?

Kids typically get all the nutrients they need from food, but supplements can add peace of mind

Mother looking at multivitamins for child in a pharmacy.

You’re doing your best to model good eating habits. You really are. You’re valiantly cooking broccoli and tossing salad and eating the rainbow. And hoping that your child will adopt some of those same healthy habits.

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The reality? Another piece of broccoli tossed on the floor. Another close-mouthed grimace when you try to spoon-feed them anything that isn’t covered in sugar. Or maybe your kid is more of the nothing-but-nuggets type.

All of which may leave you wondering if you should consider those multivitamins for kids. We talked with pediatrician Laura O’Connor, MD, to find out what nutrients kids often lack and if children’s vitamins are the answer.

Do kids need multivitamins?

Some babies, toddlers and older children need supplemental vitamin D. But most kids get all the other nutrients they need to grow and develop properly from food, even if they’re picky eaters, says Dr. O’Connor. But if you want added peace of mind, a multivitamin is a safe addition.

“It’s like having an insurance policy. You don’t need it, but it’s a good idea,” she says.

Sometimes, though, vitamin supplements are more than a safety net. They’re essential if a child has trouble getting the nutrients they need to thrive. Factors that make multivitamin supplements necessary include:

What vitamins do children need more of?

It’s best for kids to get all the vitamins and minerals they need from a well-balanced diet. And generally, they do. But it can be more challenging to get adequate levels of certain nutrients.

Dr. O’Connor explains common nutrients your child may be missing, and strategies to get more of them without a multivitamin.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D has several important functions:

  • Helps build strong bones.
  • Helps maintain a healthy immune system.
  • May affect mental health.

About 15% of young children and 17% of adolescents have vitamin D deficiency.

The primary way people get vitamin D is through sun exposure. Skin converts sunlight into vitamin D. These days, people spend more time indoors — especially those living in cold-weather regions. And many people (smartly!) use sunscreen while outdoors, which may reduce how much vitamin D your body makes.

Some foods also contain vitamin D, and it’s added to others (fortified foods). You can find vitamin D in:

  • Eggs.
  • Fortified cereal, milk, orange juice and yogurt.
  • Salmon.
  • Tuna.

Vitamin D supplement recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents pay close attention to their children’s vitamin D needs. Your healthcare provider may prescribe a vitamin D supplement or direct you to over-the-counter supplements. Here’s how much kids need and when to supplement:

Breastfed (chestfed) babies

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Give a vitamin D supplement of 400 international units (IUs) a day starting a few days after birth.

Formula-fed babies

Provide a vitamin D supplement of 400 IUs until your child is drinking 32 ounces of formula a day. Many babies usually drink that much when they’re around 1 month old, Dr. O’Connor says. Formula provides an adequate amount of vitamin D when babies have enough of it.

Breast milk and formula combo babies

If your child is drinking less than 32 ounces of formula a day, give your baby a daily vitamin D supplement of 400 IUs.

Ages 1 to 9 years

Is your child getting 32 ounces of formula or two to three servings a day of vitamin D-fortified milk, yogurt and cheese? If not, continue giving your child 400 IUs of vitamin D every day.

Ages 10 to 19 years

Adolescents need 600 IUs of vitamin D a day. If your child isn’t getting that amount through their diet, your healthcare provider may recommend a supplement.

Iron

Iron is vital throughout childhood and adolescence. It’s necessary to deliver oxygen throughout the body. Typically, full-term newborns have enough iron stored in their bodies to provide for their needs for the first six months. Around that time, babies can start to eat iron-rich foods, like pureed red meat, soft bits of eggs or iron-fortified cereal.

But preterm (premature) babies don’t have the same iron stores built up and need to consume more iron after birth. Formula is usually enriched with iron and can meet your child’s needs for the first year. But breast milk doesn’t contain much iron. So, if you’re breast or chestfeeding a preterm baby, ask your provider if your newborn needs an iron supplement.

Getting enough iron can be a problem for toddlers, older children and adolescents, too, especially if they don’t eat meat. If that’s the case for your child, talk to your provider about the best way to ensure your kiddo gets an adequate amount of iron. It may take strategic meal planning or a supplement.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is key for developing brains and nerves. This nutrient is only found naturally in animal products. It’s often included in fortified cereals, nondairy milks and nutritional yeast. Providers may recommend that children on vegan diets take a supplement.

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Dangers of supplements for kids

Giving your child a children’s vitamin is generally safe if you follow the recommended dosage. Keep children’s vitamins stored safely out of your child’s reach. Many of them look and taste like candy. Overdosing on nutrients like vitamins A and D and iron can be toxic.

How to choose a good children’s multivitamin

If your child needs specific vitamins, your provider can prescribe them or recommend ones for you to get over the counter. If you just want a multivitamin to give your child an added nutritional boost, here’s what to look for:

Quality

Search for vitamins that state “NSF certified” on the label. That means an independent third party tested them to make sure they contain exactly what’s on the label.

Age-appropriate

Only purchase vitamins made specifically for children — the age should be on the label. Adult vitamins have dosages that aren’t appropriate for kids.

Ingredients

A good children’s multivitamin should contain calcium, vitamin D and iron, says Dr. O’Connor.

Avoid fillers

Choose children’s vitamins that don’t contain artificial flavors, dyes or sweeteners. Also, avoid corn syrup and vitamins high in sugar.

Watch out for allergens

Vitamins should be free of common allergens like nuts, eggs and dairy.

Be aware of choking hazards

Children’s vitamins come in liquids, chewables and gummies. Children 2 and under need liquid or concentrated liquid drop vitamins, notes Dr. O’Connor.

“For older kids, consider your child’s ability to chew and swallow. You can also look at the label for age guidance,” she adds.

Feeling overwhelmed? Ask your provider for a recommendation or bring your child’s multivitamin in for your provider to review.

And remember, says Dr. O’Connor, “Supplements don’t take the place of having a well-balanced, nutritious diet. Continue to offer and encourage your child to eat healthy, wholesome foods.”

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