We all know that vitamin D is important and that sun exposure can do wonders for our vitamin D intake. But is there more to it? What does vitamin D actually do? Is it recommended that expectant mums and new babies take supplements? And if so, why? What can too little or too much vitamin D do? We have tackled some of these questions in this blog post.
What is vitamin D and where do our bodies get it from?
Vitamin D helps us keep our bones, teeth, and muscles healthy. According to the NHS Choices website, in the UK from about March/April through to September, most people who regularly spend time outdoors can get enough vitamin D. This happens because our amazing bodies can create vitamin D through direct exposure of our skin (just think forearms, hands or lower legs) to the sun (without sunscreen). This is especially easier in the hours between 11am and 3pm. Short bouts of exposure of 10-15 minutes are enough for light-skinned people, but people with darker skin will need to spend longer in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D. For the rest of the year though, from October to March, we just can’t get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. So if we can’t get it from exposure to the sun, where else can we get it from?
Diet. When the sun isn’t strong enough, we need to pay extra attention to what we are eating. Food sources that are rich in vitamin D include oily fish (like salmon or sardines), red meat, liver, egg yolks, and vitamin D-fortified foods, like cereals. If you don’t eat enough from these food groups, you may be at risk of vitamin D deficiency, and you should speak to your GP about vitamin D supplements (in the form of drops or tablets).
Why is vitamin D important for Mum?
Vitamin D in pregnancy is important because it helps expectant mums maintain proper levels of calcium and phosphorus, which in turn help build the baby’s bones and teeth. Vitamin D deficiency is quite common in adults in the UK, and certainly in the winter months, because of the reasons mentioned above.
Although not life-threatening, vitamin D deficiency in pregnancy has been linked by some studies to a higher risk of pregnancy complications, such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, preterm birth, and low birth weight. While more research is being carried out to confirm these assumptions, some pregnant women who have later been found to be vitamin D deficient can report symptoms like achy muscles, weakness, bone pain, and even softened bones, which may lead to fractures. And that is definitely something you don’t need when you’re expecting a baby!
In extreme cases, vitamin D deficiency in a pregnant woman could even lead to abnormal bone growth or rickets in the newborn baby. Effectively, if Mum suffers from a vitamin D deficiency, their baby might too. Which is why, in order to prevent any potential problems or complications created by vitamin D deficiency, expectant and new mums, especially if breastfeeding, are recommended to take at least 10-15mcg of vitamin D each day in the form of supplements. Although there is disagreement as to how much vitamin D is enough, the consensus that it is beneficial to take vitamin D to avoid a deficiency during pregnancy is unanimous. If you already take prenatal supplements, make sure that enough vitamin D is included; and if you are ever unsure or aren’t taking supplements already, always ensure that you check with your midwife or GP before taking anything new or different.
Why is vitamin D important for your new baby?
Vitamin D is important for your baby because it helps them absorb calcium and phosphorous. Too little vitamin D in babies can also cause a rare disease called rickets, where the bones either soften or weaken, potentially leading to bone deformities.
Very young babies cannot get the same amount of vitamin D from sun exposure alone – as we know, babies have very sensitive skin, and it’s important to take measures to protect them from direct sunlight. Babies younger than 6 months who haven’t been weaned yet won’t get enough vitamin D from their diet either, because of course a newborn baby cannot be fed salmon or any other vitamin D-rich foods!
But young babies will get vitamin D through their milk. Breastfed babies can only get enough vitamin D if Mum’s levels of vitamin D are satisfactory, rather than low. If Mum has a vitamin D deficiency, she will not be able to pass enough vitamin D through her breastmilk, which is why it is strongly recommended that breastfeeding mums continue to take their daily supplements. If Mum isn’t taking the supplements, the NHS Choices website recommends that exclusively breastfed babies take daily supplements of vitamin D (8.5-10mcg) from birth to one year of age.
Babies who are formula-fed will be absorbing enough vitamin D through their fortified formula milk, as long as they have more than 500ml of formula milk per day. So, supplements can be introduced at a later stage, but only when the baby is well into the weaning process and starts to have less than 500ml of formula milk per day.
If your baby is fed through a combination of breast milk and formula milk, be sure to speak to your health practitioner (Health Visitor or GP) for advice on whether a vitamin D supplement is recommended for them.
Could you have too much vitamin D?
It’s not possible to produce too much vitamin D from sun exposure, and when it comes to diet, the amounts we assume through food are minimal (considering we may not be consuming vitamin D-rich foods on a daily basis). But it is possible to assume too much vitamin D through supplements – this is called vitamin D toxicity, and it is extremely rare. It only occurs if someone has taken a very high dosage of vitamin D for an extended period of time, and it can cause a build-up of calcium in the blood. Although adults and children in the UK are much more likely to suffer from vitamin D deficiency, rather than vitamin D toxicity, it is worth being aware of this and understand its potential impact. And this is why we always recommend that you check with a health care professional before starting to take a new supplement.
Over to you now – did you find this useful? Could you be suffering from vitamin D deficiency? Do you and your children take regular supplements?