For the growing baby, adequate supplies of vitamins and minerals are important. But two in particular need highlighting to parents. Without vitamin D, baby’s teeth and bones cannot develop correctly and without enough iron, health, behavior and brain development are affected.
For the first 3 years of life, babies have high requirements for iron. They are born with a store that will run out after 4-6 months so need to replenish that from their diet. Iron is present in all the cells of the body and important in hemoglobin – the carrier of oxygen to the tissues.
The most common nutritional deficiency in infants is that of iron. This can be caused by medical conditions like celiac disease but this is rare. It is much more likely that the cause is a deficiency in diet.
This may be because the baby’s diet is over-reliant on milk and does not have enough foods that contain easily absorbed iron – like meats. Babies who are on vegetarian or vegan diets are more at risk. Babies under one year who have been moved onto cow’s milk as a main drink are also at risk as it does not contain enough iron for their needs.
PREVENTING IRON DEFICIENCY
Including good sources of iron during weaning is important. A balanced diet including meat, poultry, fish, fruit and vegetables is needed. If meat is not to be included, then other iron-rich foods like fortified breakfast cereals, lentils and green leafy vegetables should be included.
It is not a good idea to give children tea or coffee to drink as it tends to prevent the absorption of iron. Vitamin C-rich drinks like orange juice should be encouraged alongside iron-rich foods as they help the body to absorb iron.
Offering infants milk after rather than during a meal may help to prevent them becoming ‘full-up’ before finishing their food. Follow-up milks like Ronalac 2 are enriched with iron and suitable for babies over 6 months of age.
Vitamin D is vital to help the body absorb calcium for bones and teeth. There may be enough calcium in the diet but without vitamin D it will not be absorbed properly. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets, where insufficient calcium is available for growth and bones soften and bend. Bowed legs are one of the consequences.
Vitamin D can be made by the action of sunlight on the skin but mothers that have covered up in the sun or have darker skin may have low levels of vitamin D. If this is the case then their babies will also have low vitamin D stores and levels in mothers’ breast milk will probably also be low. Babies on vegetarian or vegan diets subsequent to weaning may also have low levels.
PREVENTING VITAMIN D DEFICIENCY
Spending time outdoors in the sun helps but will not provide a baby with the levels it needs and babies should not be exposed to too much sun.
Parents should be advised to feed infants foods containing vitamin D like oily fish (salmon, tuna, pilchards), eggs and meat. This also includes fortified foods like cereals, margarine, fat spreads and infant formulas.
Babies over 6 months who are being breast fed or are drinking less than 500ml of infant formula per day should be given vitamin drops. These contain vitamins A, C and D and are recommended by some authorities for children from 1-5 years.
Pregnant and breast feeding women should take 10mg of vitamin D each day.