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Supplementing your child's health

Good riddance to rickets WE may think of rickets as an old-fashioned disease – something our grandparents' generation might have suffered from – but according to recent studies Irish children are once more at risk. To understand why, it is important to understand what causes rickets, which is a deficiency in vitamin D. The primary source of vitamin D is a natural process of sunlight acting on the skin to produce the vitamin. There are also a small number of foods that contain vitamin D; however, these foods tend to be foods young children and babies do not eat such as oily fish, liver, egg yolks, some fortified cereals and margarine.

According to nutritionist and dietitian Jill Sommerville, nutrition manager at Pfizer Nutrition, one of the reasons we have seen a resurgence in rickets is because parents have become so vigilant with their children's skincare. " We're doing a really good job of protecting our kids' skin, which is great obviously, but it means they're not getting vitamin D in the form of sunlight. The only real answer then is to give it in the form of supplementation."

Another reason is Ireland's latitude and lack of sunlight, which means we are unable to produce as much vitamin D naturally as our Mediterranean counterparts.

Countries such as the UK and Canada, which are on a similar latitude to us, identified this problem many years ago and have their supplementation programmes up and running.

However, here in Ireland we are many years behind and to date agreement has only been reached on supplementing babies aged 0–12 months, although the whole population could benefit from a supplement, says Sommerville. In May of this year, the HSE issued guidelines that all children aged between 0–12 months should be supplemented with vitamin D, and midwives are now obliged to tell new mothers of this before they leave the hospital.

Sommerville says it is very simple to buy vitamin D over the counter, as it is available in all pharmacies. " The recommendation by the Food Safety Authority in Ireland is 200 international units ( IU), which can either be added to formula or dropped on the tongue. And they are tasteless."

She says that while, like anything, it is possible to overdose on vitamin D, the recommended amount of 200IU is so far below what it would take to affect your child negatively the likelihood of this happening is extremely small. In fact, 200IU is only about half of what most other countries recommend.

She also advocates continuing to supplement your child with the vitamin even after they have passed the 12-month stage.

" In some countries they advocate supplementation up until the child is five, and others recommend it for one's entire life. I think Ireland will eventually lengthen the amount of time it recommends supplementation."

Rickets is certainly something to be avoided at all costs, as it can lead to bones becoming ' bow-shaped' because they have been deprived of calcium. ( Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium into the bones.)

" The first year of life is critical for bone development, so it is vital that the new Irish policy is known to parents, especially the parents of infants," affirms Sommerville.

Mother & Babies