Sun-blocking babies leads to need for vitamin D
The lack of sunshine exposure in many babies and small children has led to an upsurge in vitamin D deficiency and rickets.
"Since we don't want infants and children unprotected in the sun, we are now recommending vitamin D drops for all babies," said Dr. Steven Abrams, a professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "In addition, there is increasing recognition that maintaining adequate vitamin D intake is important for all ages, from infants to the elderly."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines to recommend that all infants from 2 months of age, children and adolescents receive 200 IU of vitamin D per day. The previous recommendation was supplementation for exclusively breastfed infants at risk for developing rickets, a soft-bone disease.
Infant formulas and cow's milk are fortified with vitamin D at the levels needed by infants and toddlers. However, breast milk does not contain enough vitamin D for some babies, especially those with dark skin who have limited sunshine exposure.
Once called the "sunshine vitamin," vitamin D is a hormone required for proper calcium absorption and bone mineralization.
"The body can make all the vitamin D it needs when the skin is exposed to sunlight," said Abrams, also a researcher at the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor. "However, the dangers of skin cancer have caused us to recommend that everyone, including young infants, be protected with a sunblock when exposed to sunlight. That sunblock also prevents the production of vitamin D."
Vitamin D is not easily obtained through diet. Certain types of fish are good sources, and some soy beverages, fruit juices, and ready-to-eat cereals are fortified with the vitamin. Checking food labels is the best way to see if vitamin D has been added.
While the emphasis on vitamin D's benefits has focused on its role in calcium absorption and strengthening bones in children, Abrams said more evidence is pointing to the health benefits of the vitamin throughout life.
"It may have a role in preventing some diseases, like cancer," he said. "And adults who take calcium without taking vitamin D may not be getting the most benefit from the calcium."