Kids' Vitamins & Supplements May Offer Little Something Extra, but Mostly Unnecessary
By Sam Smith, MD, Surgeon in Chief, Arkansas Children's Hospital
Most parents today grew up taking some kind of vitamin – maybe a chewable shaped like a favorite cartoon character. They were often billed – and still are – as part of a healthy childhood.
But physicians and nutrition specialists have long known that children are very rarely deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. In fact, even the pickiest toddler is able to get what he or she needs to thrive from just a few bites of the main food groups.
So why are vitamins so popular? They have proliferated because parents are always looking for that little extra something that can give their kids an edge – be it with better health, a stronger athletic performance or even sharper critical thinking skills.
In most situations, vitamins and supplements really won't help children much and they can even occasionally be harmful or interact with medications your child may take.
As a consumer, it's important not to assume that everything sold at a "health store" or labeled "all natural" is truly good for you and your children. While most are fairly safe, these items are not regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, so the vitamins and minerals in them may vary or they may contain byproducts that aren't listed.
I frequently hear from mothers who are curious about certain supplements, often because their teens have talked about trying them. It's always my goal to reassure them that their child will receive all the nutrients he or she needs through a diet with the major food groups represented.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees on this. "Healthy children receiving a normal, well-balanced diet do not need vitamin supplementation over and above the recommended dietary allowances, which includes 400 IU (International Units) of vitamin D a day," the organization says in a position statement. "Megadoses of vitamins — for example, large amounts of vitamins A, C or D — can produce toxic symptoms, ranging from nausea to rashes to headaches and sometimes to even more severe adverse effects."
Remember, too, that vitamins are found in sources you don't always think about. Children can get calcium from more than just milk, cheese and yogurt. Don't forget about salmon, spinach, baked beans and almonds. All are delicious ways to include calcium in your child's diet.
You might also recall that many foods we consume these days are already fortified with extra vitamins. Many brands of milk now offer extra vitamin D and calcium is even added to kid favorites like cereals and toaster waffles.
There are, of course, exceptions and it's important to speak with your pediatrician if you do have concerns that your child may exhibit symptoms of a nutrient deficiency. A multivitamin might be helpful for your children if they have certain chronic diseases or food allergies, severely restrictive diet such as strict vegan diet, or failure to thrive.
It's also worth noting that infants who are breastfed generally need extra vitamin D. Breast milk does not contain enough vitamin D to prevent deficiency, so it's important to discuss the appropriate supplement with your pediatrician.
Overall, a basic multivitamin isn't going to harm your child, but it's certainly not a magic solution to your child's nutritional and developmental needs. Focus instead on creating healthful meals and being patient with developing taste buds!
Here's another tip: Be sure to download the new MyACH iPhone app, free from Arkansas Children's Hospital in the App Store. Everything a busy parent needs – from a health library to storage for your child's health info, insurance, medications and more.
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids' medical concerns. If you have a topic you'd like him to consider addressing, email firstname.lastname@example.org.