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Kid's Health

Vitamin D Deficiency in Children: Symptoms and How to Address Them

Reviewed by Lisa Blohm, PhD, MSN, RN

We might not often think about how much Vitamin D our children are getting daily. But we should be — especially in the winter months when many living in the colder US climates are going outdoors less frequently. Vitamin D deficiency in children is far more common than people may realize.

Prior studies found that most children in the US could benefit from more of this vitamin. Vitamin D deficiency in children can present itself in many different ways. Having the ability to identify Vitamin D issues and knowing how to boost levels is vital for every parent!

We all understand how essential vitamins are for healthy living. But let’s dive deeper to understand the vital role Vitamin D plays in a child’s health and how we can ensure they have enough.

What is Vitamin D’s Role in Keeping Children Healthy?

In order to understand why a vitamin D deficiency is so serious, we should understand some of the vital roles that vitamin plays in our health. For kids, that role is amplified because their bodies require adequate amounts of vitamin D in order to do all that growing kids do. Without enough of it, they face long-term health risks. 

Vitamin D Helps Create Healthy Bones

Calcium is vital for healthy bones. We’ve heard this message often, right? But did you know that Vitamin D also plays a role in building up healthy bones? It helps our bodies absorb calcium. These two nutrients work hand in hand to help develop, strengthen, and maintain children’s bones.

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Knowing this, we can understand why Vitamin D is so vital for children. Their bones are continuously growing in both size and density. Keeping their bones strong as they grow is important since kids are often very physically active. If children do happen to have a bone injury, Vitamin D (along with calcium!) helps them heal from it. 

Investing in children’s bone health will also set them up for vibrant health in their adult years. On average, children reach 90% of their maximum bone mass in their late teen years. Putting in some effort during their childhood will help to ensure health in the years to come. And hopefully, they’ll thank you for that!

Vitamin D Boosts Immune Function

We all know that every kid could use a little extra immune function — especially in winter! Vitamin D is shown to have a direct influence on immune health, although scientists are still trying to fully understand how. 

A controlled trial in Japan followed nearly 340 children for four months during the height of flu season. Half of the participants received 1,200 IU of vitamin D each day, while the other half received the placebo. Researchers found that the rate of contracting influenza type A was 40% lower in the group taking vitamin D than in the placebo group!

Research has shown that the active form of vitamin D tempers the damaging inflammatory response of some white blood cells. It also helps to increase immune cells’ production of microbe-fighting proteins. Studies also showed that children with significant vitamin D deficiency are more likely to get a respiratory infection than children with higher levels of vitamin D. 

Vitamin D For Hormonal and Mood Health

As any parent knows, kids have a lot of hormones — and a lot of moods! Studies are showing that Vitamin D plays an important role in hormonal, brain, and mood regulation. 

Vitamin D helps to regulate adrenaline, noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine), and dopamine production in the brain. It also helps the body keep up a steady production of serotonin. All of these hormones help regulate our emotional state. Are we content? Relaxed? Stressed out and anxious? Stuck in fight or flight mode? These hormones (among others) are responsible. Vitamin D also offers neuroprotective properties. This means it helps to protect and support the nervous system, including the brain.

What are the Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency in Children? 

Studies have found that children with lower Vitamin D levels had delayed motor development. Similarly, sometimes Vitamin D deficient children seem to suffer from general muscle pain and weakness. In both children and adults, scientists have linked low Vitamin D levels to several illnesses. 

Children with only moderately low Vitamin D levels often show few symptoms of a deficiency, which can make it difficult for parents to spot. In these cases, parents will need to rely on bloodwork to show if their children have adequate vitamin D. Testing vitamin D should be included in a yearly routine metabolic panel. Ask your doctor if you’re not sure!

Children who are severely deficient will usually suffer from noticeable symptoms or signs. Here are some of the more common ones:

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  • Frequent Muscle Cramps: Because Vitamin D helps our bodies absorb calcium, without it, children may suffer from muscle cramps.
  • Increased Bone Fractures: The inability to absorb sufficient amounts of calcium can lead to weaker bones, possibly resulting in more bone fractures.
  • Shorter than Average Height 
  • Dental Cavities: Vitamin D deficiency in children can result in cavities due to weakened enamel. Teeth can also easily chip and crack.
  • Fatigue
  • Bone or Joint Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Hair Loss
  • Frequent Illness
  • Weight Gain

Remember, children who lack Vitamin D can show one or more of these signs or symptoms.

When children are significantly low in Vitamin D, they may suffer from Rickets, a soft-bone disease, while they are still growing. Although it is uncommon in the United States these days, children with Rickets have weak and brittle bones, deformed bone structure, and /or suffer from muscle pain and weakness. These symptoms can affect the development of their motor skills and inhibit growth. Children who are malnourished can develop Rickets. 

What are Sources of Vitamin D?

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We get Vitamin D mainly through the sunlight on our skin. We can also absorb Vitamin D through food, but there aren’t many foods that offer a high level of Vitamin D.

If you want to find foods to boost vitamin D, start with fish! Fatty fish and fish liver oils provide the most Vitamin D. Mushrooms grown in UV light can also contain a decent amount of Vitamin D. Foods such as beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks naturally have Vitamin D, but in smaller amounts.

Unfortunately, with only a few food options, it can be difficult for parents to include Vitamin D in their children’s diets — especially when your kid is a classic picky-eater! 

Get your children involved and teach them how Vitamin D helps them be healthy. You can do this by letting them make healthy food selections at the grocery store. Allowing them to take part might help with the picky eating!

Luckily, we can get most of our Vitamin D from being outside in the sun since our food choices are somewhat limited!

Sunlight is usually the most effective way for children to get an adequate amount of Vitamin D. Some medical experts recommend children get at least 15 minutes of sunlight for three days a week for a sufficient dose of Vitamin D. Keep in mind, this recommendation will vary according to a variety of factors: the child’s skin tone, the season, the amount of cloud cover, the time of day, and where you live. 

  • Darker skin requires more time in the sun to absorb enough Vitamin D. 
  • At certain times of the yearUV-B radiation from the sun (what produces Vitamin D when absorbed by the skin) is low or may not even reach some parts of the world. 
  • Cloud cover and air pollution can prevent or lessen UV-B rays from reaching the earth’s surface. 
  • Sunlight is more powerful in the middle of the day (10 am – 3 pm).
  • The closer you are to the equator, the more UV-B rays you will receive. 

However, remember to balance the need for sunlight with the risk of skin cancer from extended sun exposure. Adequate sunscreen is essential when spending time outdoors in the sun. Many have questioned whether sunscreen prevents the body from absorbing Vitamin D and therefore leads to deficiencies.

However, a study from the British Journal of Dermatology shows that Vitamin D can increase from sun exposure even with adequate sunscreen applications. So, don’t skip the sunscreen when heading outside!

To Avoid Vitamin D Deficiency in Children, How Much Do They Need?

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Avoiding Vitamin D deficiency in children can be challenging, but it’s vital to their health. (In fact, low levels of Vitamin D intake during pregnancy have been linked with a greater risk of the child developing autoimmune disorders.) It is particularly difficult for infants whose diet only consists of breast milk or formula. Children under 12 months of age need 400 IU of Vitamin D daily. Nursing mothers may not be able to provide enough Vitamin D for their babies through breast milk alone. Infant multivitamin drops are an easy way to increase your infant’s Vitamin D intake. 

As children grow older, they need more Vitamin D on a daily basis. After 12 months, children need at least 600 IU of Vitamin D each day. Doctors recommend a daily range of 600 to 1,000 IU, although some medical conditions may require more. As they begin eating solid food and become physically mobile, the potential Vitamin D sources increase, making it easier for them to absorb more Vitamin D. 

Of course, we know that younger children and adolescents can be picky eaters. Parents may find it challenging to include enough Vitamin D into the diets of children with fussy palates. Supplements can be a great way to give your children the necessary amount of Vitamin D. Here are some great supplements for kids health

Multivitamins can also be a great way to include more Vitamin D in your child’s diet. Check the nutritional label to see how much Vitamin D the multivitamin contains. Here are some of our favorite kids’ multivitamins. These Vitamin D supplements and multivitamins come in yummy flavors, so even fussy-eaters will find an option they like! 

We suggest having a chat with your child’s pediatrician when trying to determine the appropriate amount of Vitamin D you need to add to your child’s diet.

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A blood test will give the most accurate measurement of your child’s Vitamin D levels. With the test results, you can work with the pediatrician to determine if your child needs a Vitamin D supplement and, if so, which would be the best options. 

It’s crucial that we ensure our children take in enough Vitamin D and promote healthy habits they will carry into adulthood. As children continue to grow and through their adolescent years, Vitamin D is essential — even through adulthood.

Our team at The Healthy Place would be more than happy to work with you to find the best supplements to improve and maintain your children’s health. Fill out the contact form, use the chat function on our website, or give us a call at one of our locations.

Rynn Jacobson is Content Marketing Director. She's passionate about educating people on natural and alternative health and wellness options. Her favorite ways to stay healthy are drinking herbal tea and hiking in the mountains.

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