You might wonder if your child really needs a multivitamin. I mean, when you think about how picky children can be with food, especially toddlers, it seems to make sense. Take a supplement, get a little insurance. But is it really that simple? Will they get too much of certain nutrients? And does a vitamin really cover all their nutritional needs?
Here, we help you decide when it’s a good idea to give a multivitamin — and when it isn’t.
How Many Children are Taking Vitamins?
In a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers tracked over 10,000 children and adolescents 2-17 years of age from 1999 to 2004. They found that over one-third had taken a multivitamin in the last month.
The interesting finding was that those children that were taking multivitamins didn’t necessarily need them. They tended to be children with regular access to healthcare, balanced diets, and had parents with higher incomes. The study questioned whether multivitamins are being used appropriately – and on the right children.
How to Tell if Kids Need Multivitamins
First off, there’s no evidence that multivitamins are beneficial for children at all. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Dietetic Association recommend that vitamin and minerals come from diet, not supplements. That’s because the benefits of vitamins and minerals are not isolated. Fruits and vegetables, for example, also contain fiber and antioxidants. Additionally, many foods are already fortified with vitamins and minerals (e.g., cereals, nutrition bars, specialty food items) making supplementation less of an issue.
In general, if your child eats a variety of foods (dairy, meats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) and is at a healthy weight he or she probably doesn’t need a multivitamin. But if your child eats very poorly, is underweight, is on a restricted diet (that includes strict vegetarians), or has any other nutrition-related concerns then talk to your child’s pediatrician to see if a multivitamin, or supplementing with specific nutrients, is appropriate.
A Better Strategy
When children aren’t eating in a consistent manner, parents think that giving a multivitamin will help cover their unmet needs. But doesn’t it make more sense to evaluate their diet and see what they’re missing — and then try to fix it with food?
My book Fearless Feeding provides detailed advice about how to meet nutrition needs. If you prefer, check Choose My Plate for age-specific guidelines for your child’s nutritional needs. When you find your child’s diet is lacking in a certain area, then make an effort to add the food group back into his or her diet.
For example, if your infant or toddler eats very little meat you’d want to offer iron-fortified cereals or other sources of iron with vitamin-C-rich fruits/veggies to help increase the absorption. This is especially true for non-meat sources of iron which are not absorbed as well.
School-aged children tend to have low intakes of vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and fiber so make an effort to provide foods from these sources throughout the week. And many young children shy away from vegetables but readily accept fruit. Keep offering vegetables without forcing but vary their fruit intake by including vitamin-A sources of fruit such as cantaloupe and more acceptable vitamin-A-rich veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes.
Got an older child? Check out my Puberty and Growth series.
When Diet Isn’t Enough
Vitamin D has been a nutrient of public health concern for some time now. The scientific community is learning that most people (kids and adults) do not get enough – and some health experts believe current recommendations are too low.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed infants receive 400 International Units (IU) of vitamin D in the first days of life. Once kids reach one year of age, needs increase to 600 IU. The major source of vitamin D is the sun and with the increase in sunscreen use, most children — and adults — fall short. Insufficient vitamin D has been linked to everything from compromised bone health to the development of cancer to a variety of autoimmune diseases.
For more about vitamin D see Vitamin D for Kids: What Parents Need to Know.
DHA is an important fat many children fall short on and it isn’t in multivitamins. It’s found mostly in fish so if your child skips that food, consider supplementation. For more on how much DHA kids need see DHA for Kids: The Complete Guide for Parents.
Check with your doctor, offer your child a variety of foods they need, and supplement when there is a good reason – and you can’t go wrong.
Want detailed information about nutrition for each age and stage of your child’s development? Check out Maryann’s book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Children From High Chair to High School.