Why does Vitamin D Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

JanelMS, RD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 4 minutes

What to know about meeting your and your child’s vitamin D needs

  • Learn why vitamin D is important for your health

  • How much vitamin D is needed by age

  • Which foods are good sources of vitamin D

What does vitamin D do?

Vitamin D, also known as calciferol, is a fat-soluble vitamin that works with calcium and phosphorus to build and maintain strong bones.1 It is also involved in nerve transmission, neuromuscular and immune function, and is a powerful antioxidant.2

Since vitamin D plays a critical role in both immune and bone health, getting too little may increase your risk of infections and limit bone development.3

How much vitamin D is needed?

Below are the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for vitamin D.

Note that the numbers for infants are Adequate Intakes (AIs), since there is not enough data to establish an RDA. The AIs provide guidance to help get a level of vitamin D that is nutritionally adequate.1

  • Infants 0 – 12 months: 400 IU

  • Children 1 to 18 years: 600 IU

  • Adults 19 to 70 years: 600 IU

  • Adults 71+ years: 800 IU1

Currently, the vitamin D recommendations for pregnancy and lactation are not different than those for non-pregnant and non-lactating adults.

Sources of vitamin D: Food and Sunlight

Other than oily fish (such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel) and fortified dairy and dairy alternatives, not many foods are high in vitamin D.1 Other sources include egg yolks from hens fed vitamin D, as well as mushrooms grown with exposure to UVB light.2

In fact, most of our vitamin D comes from supplementation as well as regular, short exposures to sunlight. When UVB light from the sun hits our skin, it leads to the formation of vitamin D.

Vitamin D in your, your baby, and your toddler’s diet

Vitamin D: Breastfeeding and formula feeding

Breastmilk is not a good source of vitamin D, so the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that infants who are partially or exclusively breastfed get 400 IU of supplemental vitamin D each day.4,5

As long as a baby is taking in 32 ounces of formula per day, they are getting enough vitamin D as all formulas are fortified with this nutrient.4 If your little one is taking in less than 32 ounces of formula per day, chat with their pediatrician about vitamin D supplementation.

Vitamin D: Your and your child’s diet

As soon as your little one begins eating solids, include foods that are rich sources of vitamin D. For babies under the age of one year who cannot drink cow’s milk yet, try to find yogurts and cereals that are fortified with vitamin D. Offer fatty fishes to help get some vitamin D as well. And of course, continue with vitamin D supplementation if necessary until at least 1 year of age.

After 1-year, fortified milk and milk alternatives can be added into the diet as well to help get vitamin D. Many plant-based milks have just as much, if not more, calcium and vitamin D as does cow’s milk.5

Choose fatty fish 1 to 2 times per week when you’re able and use vitamin D-rich eggs when possible.

Read more:

Sample Meal Plan for 6 to 12 Month Old Baby

Sample Meal Plan for 12 Month Old Toddler

Sunlight exposure

As little as 5 to 30 minutes in the right type of sunlight is usually enough to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D.1,11 However, the amount of time depends on age, season, skin color, amount of skin exposed, and sunscreen use.1,7 For example, sunscreen blocks these UV rays, so vitamin D will not be produced if you’re wearing sun block. Additionally, the darker someone’s skin, the longer they’ll need to be in sunlight for their bodies to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D.6

Interestingly, UVB light – the type of sunlight that triggers the body to produce vitamin D – does not penetrate glass, so your body cannot make vitamin D from behind a window.1 Additionally, during the winter months in higher latitudes, where the earth is tilted away from the sun more, the UV rays are not strong enough to trigger vitamin D production.8

It’s important to balance our need for vitamin D with the safety we must use when it comes to sun exposure. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration and American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies under the age of 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and to use sun protection such as clothing and shade.9 After 6 months into childhood and beyond, use of a broad-spectrum sun screen, sun glasses, as well as protective clothing is recommended.10

Because it’s important to avoid exposure to too much sunlight without protection, it is recommended that most of our vitamin D come from food and supplements.6,11

Tips for getting enough vitamin D

Include vitamin D-rich foods in your and your child’s diet regularly

Between foods and supplements, make sure you and your child are getting enough vitamin D. Fortified foods are a common source, so when purchasing cereals, milk, or non-dairy plant milks, always make sure you are choosing options that have vitamin D added.

Eating low-mercury fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel will also add this nutrient into your diet. Enjoy these grilled, baked, or pan seared with herbs and spices. If your little one refuses these foods at first, keep offering. It can actually take up to 10 or more tastes before your child begins to accept a food.12

Reference the above guidelines and talk to your physician about what is right for your child.

Consider vitamin D supplementation if needed

Vitamin D supplementation is often necessary because it is difficult to meet the requirements from food alone and because sun exposure is not always possible or recommended.

Supplementation is often recommended for the following groups of people who are particularly prone to deficiency:

  • Breastfed infants and combination fed infants, because breast milk is not a good source of vitamin D

  • Formula fed infants drinking less than 32 ounces of vitamin D fortified formula per day

  • Adolescents who do not get 600 IU of vitamin D per day in their diet

  • People with a darker skin tone which produces less vitamin D from the sun

  • People with fat malabsorptive conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, or cystic fibrosis, because vitamin D requires fat for proper absorption

  • Those with limited access to sun exposure, including people who live in northern regions

  • People who do not consume Vitamin D fortified products, such as dairy, due to allergies, intolerance, or dietary choice1,26

Chat with your or your child’s health care provider about whether you or your child may need a vitamin D supplement.

Here’s a cheat sheet of foods with amounts of vitamin D by serving:

  • Trout, 3 oz: 645 IU

  • Salmon, 3 oz: 570 IU

  • Mushrooms, white, exposed to UV light, ½ cup: 366 IU*

  • Milk, 2%, vitamin D fortified, 1 cup: 120 IU**

  • Soy, almond, oat and other plant milks, vitamin D fortified, 1 cup: 100-144 IU

  • Ready-to-eat cereal, fortified with 10% vitamin D, 1 serving: 80 IU

  • Sardines, 2 sardines: 46 IU

  • Egg, 1 large: 44 IU

  • Tuna fish, chunk light, canned, 3 oz: 40 IU

  • Cheese, cheddar, 1.5 oz: 17 IU1

*To know if the mushrooms you are purchasing are higher in vitamin D, check the Nutrition Facts Panel and look at the vitamin D content per serving. Mushrooms that have not been exposed to UV light will only have 1 to 2 IU per ½ cup.13

**Children under 1 year should not drink cow’s milk. Read more here: How Do I Introduce Milk to my Toddler

Recipe and meal ideas to help increase vitamin D

Try some fun new recipes that help get some vitamin D! Be sure to provide your little one with foods in a texture they can handle. Feel free to mash any of the below recipes up should your little one need a softer or smoother consistency.

Crispy Herb Salmon Bites with Steamed Broccoli and Cauliflower

Avocado Tuna Salad in Mini Pita Pockets

Broccoli and Cheddar Egg Cups *Use vitamin-D fortified milk for a bigger boost!

Baked Rice Balls with Salmon and Peas

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Meal Plan: Key Nutrients of Pregnancy

Meal Plan: Getting the Right Nutrition while Breastfeeding

Meal Plan for 18 to 24 Month Old Toddlers

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