For at least a decade, part of my breakfast routine has involved tossing a couple of multivitamins in front of the kids. The original cartoon-shaped chewables were a hit. Now gummies reign supreme. I believe the vitamins help keep my kids healthy, but are they actually necessary?
I asked pediatrician Michelle Hearns, M.D., F.A.A.P., of Pavilion Pediatrics at Green Spring Station in Lutherville to weigh in on the topic. She kindly reviewed some of her insight on vitamins for kids.
WHY are vitamins and minerals important?
Vitamins and minerals support the body’s immune system, growth, healing, bone strength, appetite, energy and much more. For example, vitamin A is good for eyes, skin and tissue. The B vitamins help metabolism, energy and circulation. Antioxidant vitamin C helps connective tissue and supports immunity. Vitamin D and calcium keep growing bones strong. Iron helps build muscle and sustains red blood cells.
WHERE should the vitamins come from?
Ideally, we’d get all of our essential nutrients from food. The best-case scenario would be that children always eat a healthy, balanced diet, with a variety of foods, rationed out over a whole day’s worth of kid-sized meals and snacks. Just be sure to cover your bases, Hearns says. “For the most part, if you are getting your food groups, your colors, your categories, you’re OK” without supplemental vitamins, she says.
But let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen for everyone. So, supplements can be a good option. “It doesn’t hurt, and it does lend to parental peace of mind to feel that the child has the vitamins covered,” Hearns says, particularly if a child is very picky or refuses certain food groups.
If a little “parental peace of mind” can come from a vitamin supplement, sign me up.
What about diets, such as vegetarian, that lack certain nutrients? “There is a difference between whole-family vegetarian lifestyle and when one child goes vegetarian as an individual,” Hearns explains. “When it’s a whole-family thing, meals tend to contain a good variety and balance, so that all the needs are being met, and still cover all the categories and needs. Whereas if your teenage daughter just stops eating meat and is selecting few things from family meals, there’s more room for deficiencies. It is important to ask, ‘What are you taking out, and how are you replacing it?’ to keep the balance.”
WHO should take vitamin supplements?
Not everyone needs supplemental vitamins. “It can be an unnecessary expense for some,” Hearns says. But children with certain risk factors (anemia, restricted diets, extreme pickiness, etc.) may be advised to supplement. If your child has a medical condition that requires medications, it is important to make sure vitamins will not interact poorly with those.
It is often recommended to give breastfeeding infants supplemental liquid vitamin D or polyvitamin formula drops with or without iron. Children under age 2 should not be given multivitamin chewables or gummies, and under age 4 require half of the children’s dosage (many labels say ages 2 to 3 should have one gummy per day, for example, whereas age 4 and up get two per serving). Ages 4 to 12 get a standard children’s dosage (which is generally half of the adult formula), and most kids older than 12 can have an adult dose.
WHICH brands or kinds are best?
“Over age 2, pediatric vitamins are the same,” Hearns says. “The brands and types (whether gummies, chewables, pills) don’t really make a difference.” The contents are FDA-regulated and do not vary.
My teenagers still enjoy kids’ formula gummies. But I now see there is an abundance of adolescent vitamin products for kids aged 12 to 17, with formulas labeled “teen,” “teen sport” or “teen hair, skin and nails,” as well as several versions of “his” and “hers” teen vitamins. “The difference is largely in the marketing,” Hearns says, “although some girls may need more iron if menstruating or vegetarian, but diet can make up for that as well.”
The iron in a complete multivitamin is generally enough, unless a child has been determined to be anemic. Supplemental iron may be warranted if an iron deficiency is noted.
WATCH for safety
Mega doses of vitamins aren’t healthy for children and excess is excreted anyway (and can be dangerous in some cases). Instead, boost your vitamin intake through foods when you feel it is necessary. Pumping up on additional vitamin C during cold season “can be done with drinking extra orange juice and eating your fruits and veggies,” Hearns says.
Vitamins may seem like fun treats, so make sure kids know they are not candy. “Basic parental responsibility stuff,” Hearns says. Don’t refer to them as candy and don’t leave vitamins where kids can get into them and potentially overdose — particularly if the product contains iron.
WHEN in doubt
Ask your pediatrician for advice on your child’s individual nutritional needs. Supplemental vitamins and minerals may not be necessary for all kids, but they can be a great source of essential nutrients for others.
Families strive for complete, balanced meals, but when hectic schedules or extreme pickiness get in the way of the best-laid plans, vitamin supplements offer a simple daily habit to help parents ensure their kids are growing and staying healthy.