What I Learned About Vitamin D Supplements For My Baby
When I brought my new bundle of joy home from the hospital, I rested easy knowing that in the early weeks of life, young infants don’t need much to survive and be happy. My list included milk, diapers, a safe place to sleep, and a lot of love. I could save the piles of toys and baby equipment for later.
I was surprised, then, when at my son’s three-day checkup, our pediatrician informed me that breastfed babies require a vitamin D supplement. I had previously been told that breast milk was a perfect food for babies, so this confused me and started me on a path to learn more.
Vitamin D deficiency in babies
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all breastfed infants receive 400 IU of vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin,” a day. Vitamin D, along with calcium and phosphorous, is one of the key vitamins babies need to develop strong bones. Without it, babies have a hard time absorbing calcium and phosphorous, which can lead to scary symptoms like pain, fragile bones, a misshapen skull, poor growth, and rickets. Symptoms of rickets may take several months to show up. In adults, a vitamin D deficiency can lead to similar symptoms and, left unchecked, can ultimately contribute to osteomyelitis and osteoporosis. Our bodies also need sufficient vitamin D to reduce inflammation, help with cell growth, and aid in neuromuscular and immune function.
Vitamin D plays a role in maintaining healthy teeth since tooth enamel, the hard substance on the surface of our teeth, is made mostly of the mineral, calcium phosphate. Research suggests that infants of mothers who were deficient in vitamin D during pregnancy are more likely to have enamel defects and higher cavity rates than infants of mothers who had sufficient levels of vitamin D during pregnancy.
If mother’s milk otherwise has all the nutrients a baby needs, why the need for vitamin D supplementation? We naturally produce vitamin D for our bodies by exposing our skin to sunlight, specifically UVB rays, which are the same ones that cause sunburn and can lead to skin cancers, including the deadly malignant melanoma. It only takes 10-15 minutes of exposure to the sun for your body to get the vitamin D it needs. We’re told, however, to keep new babies out of the sun because their delicate skin is so much more susceptible to burning, which raises their risk of skin cancer. Infant sunscreen is only recommended for infants 6 months and older, so until my son was that age, I kept him inside as much as possible and always covered him with a hat and long sleeves. If we follow the common advice to keep our babies out of the sun, they don’t get the vitamin D that they need naturally.
Even if your baby spends time outside, those who live in far northern climates and those with darker skin are at a higher risk for having vitamin D deficiency. In fact, the Canadian Pediatric Society notes that vitamin D deficiency and rickets are more common in infants who live in the high northern aboriginal coastal communities. One of the problems with balancing our need for skin exposure for the sake of getting enough vitamin D while also trying to minimize our risk of skin cancer is that our bodies don’t have a special timer that tells us when we have absorbed the ideal amount of sun. To add to the confusion, the amount of sun we need depends upon where in the world we are, what time of day we are exposed to the sun, and how long we are in the sun.
Formula-fed and formula-supplemented babies have different vitamin D requirements because most infant formula is already supplemented with vitamin D. Your exclusively formula-fed infant may need some vitamin D supplementation if he or she drinks less than a liter, or 32 ounces, of formula a day. It’s always wise to consult your pediatrician about your child’s particular needs.
Can you increase vitamin D in breast milk?
I was concerned to learn that a mother who is low in vitamin D, due to the above factors, or a lack of vitamin D in her diet, will produce breast milk with lower levels of vitamin D. Fortunately, the Canadian Pediatric Society reported that a nursing mother can supplement with vitamin D herself in order to increase the level of vitamin D in her breastmilk. Unfortunately, the recommendations for how much vitamin D a lactating mother should supplement with vary widely. According to the Institute of Medicine, lactating women require 400-600 IU of vitamin D daily. The Endocrine Society recommends 1,500-2,000 IU of vitamin D daily. The Vitamin D Council, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate the public about vitamin D, recommends 4,000-6,000 IU/day.
My OB/GYM, who is a no-nonsense, “what’s-the-science-behind-it?” kind of doctor, simply recommended that I continue to take my prenatal supplement while breastfeeding to ensure I was giving enough nutrients to my son through breastmilk. She also reminded me of the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet. This recommendation is especially important for mothers who are opposed to giving their infant a vitamin D supplement.
Do vitamin D drops help babies sleep?
It’s incredibly important to me that my baby sleeps well, so I looked into whether or not vitamin D supplements help babies sleep. While I found no reports that vitamin D supplements interfere with a baby’s sleep, I read a study from the National Institutes of Health, that concluded that low levels of vitamin D may be a risk factor for unhealthy sleep in adults. This makes sense, given the myriad health problems that can occur when one has low levels of vitamin D.
Can vitamin D cause gas and stomach upset in infants?
While vitamin D drops themselves do not cause stomach upset in infants, it is possible that secondary ingredients in your baby’s vitamin D drops (e.g., artificial colors, preservatives), may cause an upset stomach for your infant. A symptom you might notice is increased fussiness in your infant after he or she has a dose of vitamin D. You may need to experiment with different vitamin D brands to see which one is a good fit for your baby.
Can vitamin D drops cause constipation in infants?
Vitamin D drops do not cause constipation in infants. If your infant becomes constipated after having a dose of vitamin D it is possible that you are giving too high of a dose, since constipation is a symptom of vitamin D overdose. One of the most common ways to overdose your infant with vitamin D, is to use the wrong size dropper, so always be sure to administer the vitamin D drops exactly as outlined in the product instructions. Do not use a dropper that came from a different product.
Best brands of vitamin D for babies
Vitamin D supplements can be given to babies without a prescription. You can buy oral vitamin D drops for babies at Walmart, Target, Walgreens, or any store that sells other supplements. Your baby needs 400 IU a day, so check the vitamin D supplement packaging to see how many drops to give to your baby a day. Some brands of vitamin D drops require several drops to get a dosage of the requisite 400 IU while others require only one drop. I’ve also noticed that some vitamin D supplements contain other vitamins or probiotics while others contain only vitamin D and one or two inactive ingredients, such as fractionated coconut oil. If your baby seems to have a reaction to his or her vitamin D drops, you might consider trying a different brand that contains fewer ingredients.
How to Give Your Baby Vitamin D Drops
Administering medication or supplements to a squirmy baby is never a fun task. Thankfully, vitamin D supplement bottles always include a dropper, an oral syringe, or a type of bottle opening that lets you administer one drop at a time. This makes it easy to give your baby vitamin D drops. If you’re breastfeeding you can give your baby the vitamin D drop by putting it on your nipple and then letting your baby breastfeed. Alternatively, you can put the drop on another clean surface, such as a washed finger, that your baby will suck on.
As with most supplements, there are many different companies that make vitamin D supplements for babies. It can be dizzying to wade through them all. Initially I tried Enfamil vitamin D drops because of its easy-to-use bulb-style dropper. I’ve also liked Baby Ddrops, which uses what the company calls their “Euro D Dropper,” where you turn the bottle upside down and wait for a drop to fall out by itself. The bottle is designed to let out only one dosing at a time, which helps reduce the risk of vitamin D overdose. Like other supplements, you will want to be careful that your vitamin D supplement is stored upright in a cool, dry place.
What to Do if You Forget to Give Your Baby Vitamin D Drops
In the early months
of parenthood, the days and nights blurred together and it was hard for me to remember whether or not I had given my baby his daily vitamin D supplement. The first time this happened I called my pediatrician, who told me that it’s actually more of a problem to accidentally give your infant a double dose of his or her vitamin D supplement than it is to skip a dose.
Vitamin D overdose is not common but it’s something to be aware of. The symptoms of a vitamin D overdose include nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and fatigue. More serious symptoms include kidney damage and heart problems.
To avoid vitamin D overdose in infants, the Food and Drug Administration has warned parents to only use the dropper that comes with a vitamin D supplement itself and to not use another dropper that you have at home such as one that came with another product. The FDA also recommends that you store your vitamin D supplement with its original packaging so it’s easy to check the dosing instructions.
As for me and my sleep-deprived forgetfulness, I learned to set a recurring alarm on my phone to remind me to give my baby his vitamin D supplement every morning. By the time he was 3 months of age we had fallen into a better routine and I easily remembered to give him his supplement each day. Once he started eating solids it became an easy transition for me to put his daily vitamin D supplement drop into his morning cereal.
During pregnancy, baby builds up stores of vitamin D, along with other vitamins, minerals, and fat, so I was happy to learn that even though I didn’t give my baby vitamin D supplements for the first week or so after he was born, he was likely just fine. I’m thankful for those prenatal supplements I dutifully took for nine months! Interestingly, the Vitamin D Council cited two studies from the University of South Carolina that suggested that women who supplemented with 4,000 IU of vitamin D daily during pregnancy were more likely to have an uncomplicated birth, with fewer incidences of gestational diabetes, infections, or preeclampsia. This would suggest that when it comes to vitamin D supplementation for pregnant women, more is better than less.
When to Stop Giving Your Baby Vitamin D
Once your baby begins to eat solids, he or she will start getting vitamin D from food. Good sources of vitamin D include eggs, cereal, sardines, and cow’s milk, which is usually supplemented with vitamin D. Our pediatrician recommended that we use a vitamin D supplement for our baby until he is weaned from breastmilk and drinking 32 ounces of cow’s milk a day. I will note here that it is not recommended for babies to consume cow’s milk until their first birthday because their bodies cannot yet process the proteins in cow’s milk. In fact, cow’s milk is one of the most common allergies for children.
Once babies are one year old, their daily need for vitamin D increases from 400 IU to 600 IU, but by eating a healthy diet they should be able to meet their vitamin D nutritional needs without supplementation. Vitamin-D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it is best absorbed when paired with a little fat. A cup of vitamin D-fortified milk contains more than 100 IU of vitamin D. An egg contains 42 IU of vitamin D, all of which can be found in the yolk. Three ounces of cooked sockeye salmon contain more than 400 IU of vitamin D. For those who are unable to or choose not to consume those foods that are rich in vitamin D, vitamin D supplements do exist in a larger 600 IU dosing.
Baby Foods that Contain Vitamin D
Like so much of parenthood, my knowledge about vitamin D supplements for babies has gone from “I had no idea this was a thing” to educating myself and understanding its place in an infant’s daily routine. As my son’s mom it’s my job to keep him safe and help him grow, and I’m happy to spread the word to make other parents’ lives a little easier. When he’s a bit older and able to run around outside, I know I will think a little differently about the sunshine he’s enjoying, since I now know it creates a critically important vitamin for his body.