A well-balanced diet provides nutrients essential for children’s growth and development. However, children who eat a limited diet or are less able to absorb or make certain nutrients may need supplements.
This article outlines the vitamins and minerals children need for healthy growth and development and offers advice on how children can acquire these from their diet. It also provides information on when children may need supplements and general tips on nutrition for parents and caregivers.
Children benefit from a diet that contains all the essential food groups in order to grow strong and healthy. Planning a child’s meal to include all the necessary macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals can give them a healthful start.
Below are some of the essential vitamins and minerals that children need.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adolescents reach 90% of their peak bone mass by age 18 for females and age 20 for males. As such, a child’s diet must contain all the essential nutrients for bone health.
The following micronutrients work with calcium to build healthy bones:
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides the following daily calcium requirements for children of different ages:
- Children aged 1-3: 700 milligrams (mg) per day
- Children aged 4-8: 1,000 mg per day
- Children aged 9-18: 1,300 mg per day
Dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, are good sources of calcium. An 8-ounce glass of milk provides 300 mg of calcium.
Other good sources of calcium include:
Vitamin D helps to build strong bones and prevents the childhood condition rickets. This condition causes a softening and weakening of the bones.
Children younger than 12 months of age need 400 international units (IU) or 10 micrograms (mcg) of Vitamin D each day. Children aged 1–18 years need 600 IU or 15 mcg each day.
Exposure to sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D3 in the skin. A person then stores the vitamin in their liver and fat cells.
It is not clear how much sun exposure a person requires to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. Some researchers suggest that 5–30 minutes of sun exposure at least twice a week without sunscreen can trigger sufficient vitamin D synthesis.
However, sun exposure may increase the risk of skin cancer. Children should always wear sunscreen to reduce this risk even though it may inhibit vitamin D absorption.
Very few foods contain vitamin D. Fortified foods provide most of the vitamin D in the American diet, with one cup of milk containing 100 IU.
Some food sources of vitamin D include:
- fortified plant milks, such as almond milk, soy milk, and oat milk
- fortified breakfast cereals, fruit juices, and margarines
- fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- fish liver oils
The following foods also contain small amounts of vitamin D:
There are many different types of B vitamins. According to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, most B vitamins help the body to release energy from food. As such, they are vital to supporting a child’s energy requirements.
Children also require B vitamins for the following:
- healthy blood
- healthy metabolism
- healthy neurological development
- healthy skin and eyes
Children can obtain B vitamins from the following food sources:
- meat, poultry, and fish
- whole grains
- foods fortified with B vitamins
Iron helps red blood cells to transport oxygen throughout the body.
Iron is important throughout all stages of a child’s development. Children between 1–18 years of age need between 7–15 mg of iron per day, depending on their age and sex.
There are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme.
Heme iron is present in animal products, such as:
- red meats, including beef, pork, and lamb
- fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- poultry, such as turkey and chicken
Plants and fortified food products contain non-heme iron. A person can aid their absorption of non-heme iron by pairing it with foods that are rich in vitamin C.
Sources of non- heme iron include:
Vitamin C is one of the primary nutrients that children need for healthy immune system function and development. It also helps to maintain healthy skin, bones, and blood vessels.
Children require between 15–75 mcg vitamin C per day, depending on their age and sex.
Many fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C. Cooking can destroy vitamin C content, so providing a child with a selection of raw foods is beneficial.
Good sources of vitamin C include:
Vitamin A is essential for growth and tissue repair. It also helps support healthy skin and vision.
Children need between 300–900 mcg vitamin A per day, depending on their age and sex.
Dietary sources of vitamin A include:
- vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach
- dairy products
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, toddlers and older children who eat a well-balanced diet generally do not need vitamin and mineral supplements.
However, children who are at risk of nutrient deficiencies may require a supplement. Below are some examples in which a dietary supplement may be necessary.
Children eating a vegan or vegetarian diet
Children eating a vegan diet need to take a vitamin B12 supplement. This is because vitamin B12 is only present in animal products, such as meat and dairy. Some fortified plant-based foods contain vitamin B12.
The American Dietetic Association advise that a well-planned vegetarian diet is appropriate for people during all life stages.
A child may need a supplement if they eat a plant-based diet that does not include all essential food groups.
A person can ask a dietitian for advice on planning plant-based meals and snacks for their child.
Children with celiac disease
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which gluten consumption causes the immune system to attack the tissues of the small intestine.
Children who have celiac disease cannot absorb nutrients efficiently due to damage to the lining of their gut. They often need additional vitamins and minerals in the form of a supplement. A doctor can advise a parent or caregiver on the best type of supplement to provide.
Children with darker skin
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, children with dark skin may have lower vitamin D levels than those with light skin. This is because darker skin contains a higher concentration of the pigment melanin. Melanin reduces the absorption of sunlight, thereby reducing the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D.
However, a 2018 article highlights a paradox among Black Americans. Although Black Americans have markedly low vitamin D levels, they have fewer bone-related health issues than white Americans with similar vitamin D status.
Specifically, Black Americans experience fewer fractures and fewer cases of osteopenia. Osteopenia is the medical term for lower-than-average bone density.
There are currently no guidelines that state children with darker skin need vitamin D supplementation.
The United States Department of Agriculture information tool My Plate offers information on how to plan a child’s meal to support healthy growth and development.
Some children may have an underlying medical condition that reduces their ability to absorb certain nutrients. In such cases, a doctor can advise a person on which supplements to provide.
When providing a dietary supplement, people should choose one that contains the recommended daily amounts of the necessary nutrients. Most multivitamin and mineral formulas contain nutrients in balanced amounts. People should avoid giving a child a supplement that contains nutrient amounts that exceed the recommended guidelines.
Parents and caregivers should also choose supplements with childproof packaging. This will prevent children from eating supplements, which they may mistake for sweets.
A well-balanced diet should provide the vitamins and minerals necessary to support a child’s growth and development. However, children who have a limited diet and those who are less able to absorb or make certain nutrients may require nutritional supplements.
A child’s nutrient requirements will differ according to their age and sex. People should check supplement labels carefully to ensure they provide the appropriate levels of nutrients for their child.
If in doubt, parents and caregivers can talk to a doctor or dietitian for further advice about suitable supplements.