Health 

Your Go-to Guide to Vitamins for Kids

December 23, 2020 6 min read

Mom and young daughter walking down the street holding hands

Kids have unique nutritional needs that depend on gender, age, activity level, and underlying health problems. Pediatric clinical guidelines support that most healthy kids do not need vitamin supplementation or even multivitamins if they’re eating a balanced diet. 

Children who may need supplements include babies who are exclusively breastfed, kids on a strict vegetarian or other diet, those with fat malabsorption conditions, or those with developmental delays that make it difficult for them to eat healthy meals and snacks. This article will help parents better understand what to look for in a supplement, what to avoid, and how to improve the health of their children through healthy lifestyle factors.

Do kids need vitamins?

Children are often labeled picky eaters despite their parents’ best efforts, but even these picky eaters often get the nutrients they need for healthy growth. Most kids who eat a balanced diet do not require supplements, but there are special cases in which a child should take vitamins. 

In fact, over 33% of American children take vitamins despite the American Academy of Pediatrics advising against them for healthy children(1). This is likely due to the influx of processed foods flooding the standard American diet, providing children with fewer nutrients from their diet alone. But daily supplements should never replace a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins.

The role of vitamins in the body

There are 13essential vitamins and minerals that each play different roles in the body. These must be consumed from food since the human body cannot synthesize them in adequate amounts(1). These nutrients are critical for growing kids as they play a role in developing bones, muscles, brain, hormones, and the immune system. 

The following list breaks down the essential vitamins for kids and what could happen if a deficiency arises(1)(10):

  • Vitamin C primarily fights infections and helps with iron absorption. Signs of vitamin C deficiency in children include irritability, decreased appetite, weakness, bleeding, and gingival disease that causes red, swollen gums and tooth pain.
  • Vitamin D is essential forstrong bones and teeth thanks to its role in calcium absorption. Kids who lack vitamin D may not have any symptoms, but severe deficiencies may lead to seizures, tetany, or rickets.
  • Vitamin A is the body’s tool for healthy skin and vision. In regions with low consumption of foods rich in vitamin A, its deficiency is the leading cause of vision loss in children.
  • Vitamin B includes a complex of vitamins that help the body make red blood cells and perform other important metabolic processes.
  • Vitamin K is given to all newborns to prevent vitamin K deficiency bleeding disorder (VKBD), also known as hemorrhagic disease of the newborn. If not supplemented at birth, 6-12% of newborns will develop this condition.
  • Calciumis a critical mineral for bone health. If not consumed in adequate amounts, it can affect development and lead to weak, fragile bones and possibly osteoporosis later in life. 
  • Ironplays a role in the bloodstream, helping oxygen circulate to all the organs. A child with chronically low iron may have developmental or behavioral problems as well as slower growth. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids and fish oil may help treat ADHD in children and adolescents, but much of the data is still inconclusive. These studies still support that traditional ADHD medications are more effective.
  • Probioticsare believed to help prevent occasional diarrhea and may help to combat other digestive issues. There is evidence to support the benefits ofprobiotics in children, including digestive, immune, and mood support. 
Guide to key vitamins for kids

Vitamins for kids in everyday foods

A wide range of naturally grown, harvested, or raised foods house the vitamins and minerals that kids need to thrive.

  • Vitamin C is in citrus fruits, strawberries, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, and brussels sprouts. 
  • Vitamin D is in meat, fish, and eggs. Many children also get vitamin D from fortified foods and sunlight. 
  • Vitamin E is in dairy products, liver, and yellow and orange vegetables.
  • Vitamin B is in fish, soy, eggs, milk, whole grains, meat, poultry, enriched bread, and fortified cereals.
  • Vitamin K is in green leafy vegetables, legumes, and vegetable oils. 
  • Calcium is in fortified milk, cheese, yogurt, and sardines, with a small amount in broccoli. 
  • Iron is in red meat, raisins, eggs, green leafy vegetables, beans, whole grains, and fortified cereals(1)(2).

By including diverse combinations of these ingredients in family meals, you can help ensure your kids receive the nutrients they need. 

Understanding vitamin lingo

Many supplements are sold in doses of International Units (IU) or by weight, such as milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg). IU is a unit that describes the potency of the vitamin, converted to milligrams or micrograms depending on the type of vitamin(8)(9). This is why you’ll see some dosages of IU/day versus mg/day or mcg/day.

The best way for parents to know what their child’s dose should be is to look at the recommended daily allowances (RDA) for each nutrient using a valid, peer-reviewed source. A great place to start is withNIH resources on dietary supplements

Vitamins for kids based on age group

Children are more than just tiny adults and require special nutrition depending on their age. There are cases in which a child will benefit from daily supplementation, and there are cases in which it might be a requirement for adequate growth and health(3)

One example is babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all breastfed and formula-fed babies who do not consume fortified milk be supplemented with 400 IU/day of vitamin D. Premature infants need 400-800 IU/day. Exclusively breastfed infants are also at a higher risk of vitamin B12 deficiency when the mother is deficient.

Kids who have fat malabsorption conditions, such asceliac disease,cystic fibrosis, orCrohn’s disease, will also have decreased absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins D, K, A, and E, among other minerals. Adolescents on a strict vegetarian diet may be deficient in vitamin B12, and adolescent girls are often deficient in iron and calcium due to puberty changes.

Active kid playing in the pool

Vitamins for kids who play sports

Youth sports have become more competitive in recent years, with many kids dedicating themselves to one sport and suffering overuse injuries(12). This puts additional strain on their bodies, which requires more healing and recovery time. 

Some adolescents may want to use performance-enhancing supplements such as protein, creatine, energy drinks, and caffeine. However, several pediatric health organizations warn against using these substances because they can dangerously affect the kidneys, heart, and lungs and have not been proven safe or effective for young people(4)(6). Instead, the goal should be to feed active kids a high-nutrient diet with plenty of hydration, calories, and rest.

Is there such a thing as too many vitamins for kids?

Hypervitaminosis can occur from excessive intake of supplements, especially fat-soluble vitamins that cannot be excreted in the urine as easily. Children’s multivitamins are often the biggest culprits in putting kids at risk of vitamin toxicity due to their candy-like appearance and flavors. 

One study that looked at children’s multivitamins sold in Canada found that many contained excess zinc, copper, folic acid, iron, and vitamins A and C (13). Another comprehensive study found that some of the vitamins from various brands exceeded the RDA for children by 200, 500, or even 1000% (14). 

These multivitamins may also interact with other medications your child is taking(4). Parents should be aware that although those tasty gummy or chewable vitamins are all marketed to children in a similar way, they may not be the same(5). Parents should also store multivitamins in a safe place to prevent young children from taking them in excess. 

In Summary

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend vitamin supplements for healthy children and adolescents who eat a balanced diet. However, many children lack the proper nutrients or have underlying health conditions that make it challenging to get the vitamins and minerals they need. This is especially true for children with developmental delays, chronic malabsorption conditions, food allergies, or those on strict alternative diets. 

If a child needs a multivitamin or other supplement, it’s often hard for parents to know which one to buy. Never pick a multivitamin with any ingredients exceeding more than 100% of the RDA for their age, and always remember to consider your child’s nutrient intake from all foods and beverages. Look for supplements that have been assessed by athird-party reviewer and always talk to your child’s pediatric provider before starting them on any new vitamin regimen. 

Briana Shipley – Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice