Our bodies need vitamin D for healthy bones, and to support growth and development. Vitamin D also strengthens our immune systems, helping us fight disease.
You might have heard vitamin D being referred to as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because your skin actually makes vitamin D after you’ve been in the sun, but you can also get limited amounts of vitamin D from the food you eat. It’s found in oily fish, egg yolks, red meat and foods like breakfast cereals which have been fortified with vitamins. Some infant formula milks are also fortified with vitamins.
Given that sunshine isn’t something we always see enough of in Britain, most people need to take steps to keep their vitamin D levels topped up. Here’s how:
Advice for adults
To help your body make the most of the sunshine, you should:
- Get outside at least two or three times a week during the summer months (April – September) to expose your skin (your face, fore-arms or legs) to sunlight. Ideally this should be between 10am and 3pm
- If you’re fair skinned, you should only stay in the sun for 10-15 minutes maximum before applying sunscreen
- Darker skinned adults should only expose their skin for 25-30 minutes maximum. Sunscreens that are factor eight and above interfere with your body’s ability to make vitamin D, but continuing to expose your skin to the sun for longer than this without applying sunscreen means you risk getting burnt
- Sunlight through a window is not enough for your body to make vitamin D efficiently!
Advice for children and young people
- Keep children under six months out of direct sunlight
- Between March and October, children who are six months and over need their skin protecting with suncream
- Talk to a health professional to get advice on how to make sure children under four years get enough vitamin D, for example through supplements
How do I know if I’m not getting enough vitamin D?
It’s easy to miss a vitamin D deficiency because for many people, the symptoms are rather vague. They might include a general feeling of tiredness or aches. When the deficiency is very severe, the symptoms include bone deformities which can lead to rickets. Children who are affected with vitamin D deficiency will show poor growth and may be reluctant to start walking. They’ll be more prone to irritability and more likely to pick up infections.
The amount of vitamin D a newborn baby has will depend on the mother’s vitamin D levels during pregnancy. Not getting enough vitamin D during pregnancy can affect the development of an unborn baby’s bones.
A simple blood test can diagnose whether you have a vitamin D deficiency. Sometimes a wrist x-ray is done for a child who is suspected of having a severe deficiency, as it will show how serious the problem is.
Who’s most at risk of vitamin D deficiency?
- Pregnant or breastfeeding women may have low levels of vitamin D, and there is an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency developing in women who have had several babies with short gaps between pregnancies
- Pregnant teenagers are particularly vulnerable to a vitamin D deficiency because their own bones are still developing and they need extra for their baby
- Breast-fed babies whose mothers have a vitamin D deficiency are at risk too because they won’t be getting enough of it from the breast milk
- Babies and young children who are growing quickly
- Babies born to overweight mothers, and mothers who suffer with gestational diabetes
- People of South Asian, African, Caribbean and Middle Eastern descent, and those who remain covered when outside, are more likely to have insufficient vitamin D levels
- Older people are also at increased risk because their skin cannot synthesise vitamin D efficiently, they are likely to spend more time indoors and may not have enough dietary vitamin D
The current recommendations are that:
- Everyone over one year of age should take a supplement of 10mcg (400 iu) vitamin D per day, and especially all pregnant and breastfeeding women
- As a precaution, breastfed babies from birth up to a year old should also be given a daily supplement of 8.5-10 mcg vitamin D
- Formula fed babies don’t need to take a supplement as long as they are having 500 ml or more of formula milk each day. That’s because vitamin D is already added to the formula
- Vitamin D supplements can be purchased from your local pharmacy
There’s no evidence that taking vitamin D supplements at these doses, on top of the vitamin D you get from your diet, is harmful.
Healthy Start Vitamins and Vitamin D
Healthy Start infant vitamins are offered in the form of drops, with a daily dose of 5 drops per day – and should be used on a daily basis for maximum effectiveness.
The drops are supplied in a 10ml bottle containing eight weeks’ supply. The shelf life is ten months.
Each daily dose of 5 drops contains 10 microgrammes of vitamin D, in line with Government recommendations.
Giving a baby Healthy Start vitamin drops from birth will do the baby no harm.