Common Vitamin Deficiencies in Children

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Vitamin deficiencies among children are more common than you may think. The symptoms of vitamin deficiencies can be so subtle that they’re easy to miss. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the most common vitamin deficiencies; when you know what vitamins are commonly lacking, you can take steps to ensure your child’s health.


Vitamin D Deficiency

Ten to 40% of American children are deficient in vitamin D, and as many as 60% of American youth have vitamin D levels lower than the amount necessary for optimal development. That’s a problem because vitamin D is essential for healthy growth and strong bones. Vitamin D also plays an important role in immunity. 

It’s relatively easy to get adequate vitamin D levels. When exposed to natural sunlight, your body produces vitamin D, which is why it’s been dubbed the ‘sunshine vitamin.’ In general, exposing your bare skin to about 10 to 15 minutes of sunlight several days a week should do the trick. The easiest way is to expose your arms and legs without sunscreen. Remember sunscreen if you or your child is spending more time in the sun than this. 

Getting enough vitamin D in the winter months can be difficult if you live where it’s cold and the days are short. Then, your child needs to get vitamin D from what they eat. Vitamin D is commonly added to milk and dairy products. Other sources of vitamin D include salmon, tuna, eggs, and vitamin D-fortified juices and cereals. 

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin D is 400 IU of vitamin D daily for babies up to age one, and 600 IU daily for everyone older than one. In some cases, supplementation will be necessary to achieve optimal vitamin D levels. Your healthcare provider can check your child’s vitamin D level with a blood test and let you know if supplementation is needed. 

Iron Deficiency

Iron is absolutely essential for our body to function. It helps us use oxygen and is a factor in everything from digestion to muscle function. Yet iron deficiency is surprisingly difficult to detect, since many children with low iron levels have no obvious symptoms. 

Iron deficiency is so common—as many as 4 to 15% of American children are iron deficient—and dangerous to cognitive development, that pediatricians recommend iron supplementation for all babies beginning at four months of age. Babies who are formula-fed should drink iron-fortified formula; breastfed babies should receive 1 mg/kg of oral iron daily beginning at four months, and continuing until they’re eating adequate amounts of iron-rich foods, such as meats or iron-fortified cereals. 

Children who eat little meat and/or drink a lot of milk or soda every day are at risk of becoming iron deficient and may benefit from iron supplementation. Talk with your child’s doctor if you’re concerned about their iron intake. A simple blood test can check your child’s iron level.

Calcium Deficiency

Many kids are short on calcium, a mineral that’s essential for healthy bones and teeth and muscle function. Calcium deficiency can lead to bone loss because the body uses calcium from bone instead of what’s circulating in the blood. 

A striking statistic is that the National Institutes of Health notes 80 to 90% of girls ages 9 to 18 take in less than the recommended daily amount of calcium; 60 to 80% of boys also take in too little calcium. Children who are vegan (do not eat dairy products from animals) or lactose-intolerant (tend to avoid dairy products) are more likely to lack calcium because dairy products are the major source of calcium in the American diet. 

National experts recommend the following amounts of calcium for children: 

  • Children from 1 to 3 years old: 700 mg of calcium daily

  • Children from 4 to 8 years old: 1000 mg of calcium daily

  • Children from 9 to 18 years old:1300 mg daily

Unlike blood tests for vitamin D and iron, a look at your child’s diet is a good measure of whether they are deficient or not. If you suspect your child’s calcium intake routinely falls below the recommended amounts, talk with your healthcare provider about supplementation. 
It’s best to obtain essential vitamins and nutrients from a diet that contains a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates—but if your child’s diet falls short, or if you or your child’s doctor suspects a vitamin deficiency, supplementation can help keep your child healthy and strong.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 3
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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