Do kids really need supplements?

Multivitamins can help some kids, but don't count on them to replace a healthy, varied diet

Q: Do kids really need supplements?

A: Most don’t, says Valerie Marchand, nutrition committee chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS). As long as children are offered a healthy, varied diet, even fairly picky eaters usually meet their nutrient needs.

Q: So how can I tell if my child needs a vitamin or multi?

A: According to the CPS, these groups need specific supplements:

Breastfed babies Exclusively breastfed babies should get 400 IU of supplemental vitamin D per day; those who have darker skin, live north of Edmonton, don’t get any sun exposure, or have a mom who’s vitamin D deficient may need double that dose between October and April. After six months, breastfed babies also need a source of iron, but it’s easy to get enough from enriched cereal or meat.

Preemies Premature babies need an iron supplement from eight weeks of age until their first birthday.

In the “maybe” category:

Kids on restricted diets “If a child has a special diet for some reason, like an allergy or an intolerance, or a vegetarian diet, parents should at least talk to their paediatrician or a dietitian,” to make sure he’s not missing out on key nutrients, says Marchand. For instance, kids who don’t drink milk may need a vitamin D supplement, even if they eat cheese and yogurt. And a diet consisting of cow’s milk and little else poses a risk of severe iron deficiency, so be sure your nine- to 12-month-old is eating lots of other foods before switching over from breastmilk or formula.
Q: But haven’t I heard all kids need a vitamin D supplement?

A: Many experts believe a daily supplement containing 400 to 800 IU is a good idea, but opinions are still divided.

Q: Can a multivitamin make up for foods my child hates?

A: No multi can replace the calcium, magnesium and phosphorus in dairy products or the fibre, potassium and countless other health-promoting substances found in fruits, veggies and whole grains.

Q: Can supplements be harmful?

A: While nutrients like vitamin A and iron can be toxic in large amounts, the levels in kids’ multis are safe when the products are used as directed, so there’s no downside to giving one to a child who doesn’t technically need it. Of course, all supplements should be kept in a child-resistant cabinet so toddlers aren’t tempted to swig a whole bottle of sweet syrup or chomp chewables by the handful.

Q: If you choose to give your child a multivitamin, what should you buy?

A: Look for one made specifically for kids. And keep your child’s maturity level in mind — gummies in particular pose a choking hazard under age five, and “junior” on the label can mean a product is aimed at kids nine to 18 years. Sugar content isn’t a health concern — after all, most vitamins are the size of a Smartie — but kids should brush or rinse after taking chewables or gummies. Dye-free vitamins are available if you think your child is sensitive to food dyes. Big name vs. store brand vs. “natural”? You may want to choose based on price, since there’s usually no difference from a nutritional standpoint.

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