- Even for so-called picky eaters, multivitamins are usually unnecessary
- Some common foods in Australia are fortified with additional vitamins to help prevent nutritional deficiency in the population
- There are some important situations where vitamins for toddlers are recommended, but this requires supplementation with specific vitamins - a multivitamin is probably unsuitable
- Vitamin C supplementation has not been proven to prevent colds
It’s easy to walk down a supermarket aisle and pluck a bottle of children’s vitamins off the shelf. Maybe you’re concerned your toddler isn’t eating enough fruits and vegetables . Maybe you’re tired of the endless bouts of sniffles that cold and flu season brings every year.
These are common reasons for supplementing toddlers’ diets with vitamins. But, are they medically valid reasons?
Should toddlers take vitamins? It seems, scientific research says no. Unless your toddler has a particular medical condition or nutritional deficiency that requires supplementation, it is unlikely they require a multivitamin.
Are toddlers really fussy eaters?
As babies enter toddlerhood, they not only enter periods of intense physical and cognitive development, they also undergo significant changes in their nutritional habits. They learn to self-feed, what social and behavioural expectations there are when it comes to eating , and they start to develop their own food preferences - keeping in mind, that this is all shaped by what and how we offer food to them.
What we eat ourselves, and what we provide our children is shaped by trends and influences around us. For example, “ since 1973, there has been a decline in the consumption of milk, vegetables, grains, and eggs , with a corresponding increase in consumption of fruit juices, sweetened beverages, poultry, and cheese.”
Throughout this learning process, your toddler’s tastes can seem to change from day to day, even meal to meal! On any individual day, your toddler’s diet may look quite erratic. Many parents and caregivers don’t realise - that’s quite ok.
If you’re looking at your toddler’s food intake some days and feeling quite concerned, there’s no need to panic. What is most important is to look at their food intake over several days, or up to a week . This is what will help you gauge whether they are, in fact, eating enough of their fruits and veggies.
It’s easy to label your little one a fussy or picky eater, when you haven’t looked at the big picture. Interestingly, even the true ‘picky eaters’ are rarely vitamin deficient .
Therefore, if you think your toddler is a little picky when it comes to their food, it doesn’t necessarily warrant heading straight for the vitamins.
What should a toddler’s diet look like?
“Children (and adults) need 13 vitamins for healthy growth — A, B (8 types), C, D, E and K.” Ideally, most of these vitamins will come from food , as it is the best source of them, with the exception of vitamin D which is produced by our skin’s reaction to sunlight.
Those vitamins that are critical to bone development (D) and brain development (A, B6, B12, D) are particularly significant during childhood.
There are a couple of different ways you can think about meal planning for toddlers, to make sure they are getting the vitamins and minerals they need for development. According to raisingchildren.net.au, you should aim for these daily food serves:
- 1 serve of fruit
- 2.5 serves of veggies
- 1.5 serves of dairy
- 4 serves of grains
- 1 serve of lean meat, nut pastes or legumes
It’s important to understand that you don’t need to provide all these food groups within each meal - that would be difficult and time-consuming indeed!
An article in American Family Physician Journal suggests including just 2 food groups at snacks and 3 food groups at main meals (keeping in mind that fruit and veg are combined in the one food group). This is a much easier way to approach feeding your toddler.
One particular area of concern when it comes to childrens’ diets, lies with the frequent consumption of commercial foods. Despite the bold claims these products make, examination of them revealed “The nutritional content of many products was inconsistent with guidelines , being low in iron, sweet, smooth in consistency, or classified as discretionary.”
Therefore, it’s important that you don’t just satisfy the food group requirements when feeding your toddler, but that much of it either consists of wholefoods or is homemade.
Your toddler may be receiving more nutrients than you think
If you have a basic understanding of nutrition and the most common sources of vitamins, you’re certainly off to a good start. For instance, knowing that citrus fruits are a good source of vitamin C is helpful when feeding your toddler.
But, there are some foods you regularly feed your toddler that actually contain vitamins you might not expect. That’s because they are fortified with important nutrients. These nutrients are not naturally present, but have been added to the product to make it more nutritionally beneficial.
For example, in Australia, margarine can be fortified with vitamin D , and bread fortified with iron and zinc. That’s three extra doses of nutrients with a simple piece of toast.
Even milk can be fortified with extra calcium , and orange juice with extra vitamin C.
I’m sure you’ve seen claims that many breakfast cereals have added nutrients. Although it seems like just another marketing ploy, the fortification of foods is strictly regulated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand .
Interestingly, the practice itself dates back to the early 1900s, with fortification existing purely to prevent nutritional deficiencies in the population .
A closer look at a few particular vitamins: to supplement or not?
On vitamin D supplementation
Vitamin D is interesting because it is not only gained through adequate nutrition, but also by sun exposure. And because of its importance to bone health, studies on vitamin D deficiency and supplementation are extensive.
For those toddlers who display one or more risk factors for vitamin D deficiency , screening, and potential supplementation is recommended. But for the majority of children in Australia and New Zealand, such measures are deemed unnecessary.
On zinc supplementation
Multivitamins usually contain zinc - that sounds beneficial, doesn't it? But a study has found that up to 87% of 2-3 year olds who take a supplement containing zinc exceed the recommended upper limit for zinc intake.
It’s no wonder this is the case, when up to 71% of 2-3 year olds who don’t take a zinc-containing supplement are exceeding that limit already. This goes to show that zinc deficiency is certainly not a cause for concern in most toddlers - they clearly receive plenty from their diets.
And it’s also a good example of how a multivitamin can increase intake levels beyond what they should be. Upper limits are there for a reason - more than what we need is not better in the case of vitamins and minerals.
On vitamin C supplementation
We understand that parents want to do everything they can to stop their children getting sick. So it can be tempting to reach for those chewable vitamin C tablets we remember from our own childhood in a bid to stave off colds.
The thing is, taking a vitamin C supplement has not been shown to prevent colds . Vitamin C is important for immunity, but eating a varied diet containing vitamin C is actually the best way to protect your little ones from colds.
And on another note - dentists do not recommend chewable vitamin C tablets for the acidity they contain damages tooth enamel.
- Growth problems
- Chronic diseases affecting how they absorb nutrients
- Restrictive diets due to multiple food allergies, or veganism
- Risk of vitamin D deficiency (e.g. because an infant was breastfed for a long time by a vitamin D deficient mother)
If you are concerned about any of these reasons, or others, please consult your GP for advice on potential nutritional deficiencies.
Safety first: precautions for giving vitamins to toddlers
If your GP has recommended vitamins for your toddler, please keep these tips in mind:
- Vitamins should always be stored safely out of reach of your children. You should make it clear to them that these aren’t lollies, despite the appealing packaging.
- Choose a vitamin that is suited to your toddler’s age, as the quantities of vitamins and minerals required change with age.
- Ensure it doesn’t exceed 100 per cent of the recommended daily value for that vitamin or mineral . That is because too much can be toxic.
Final thoughts on whether vitamins for toddlers are necessary
So if you take a good look at your toddler’s diet across a few days and still feel like they aren’t getting the nutrients they need, it’s worth seeing your GP. A balanced, varied diet really is the best way to keep your toddler healthy, rather than a multivitamin which isn’t helpful for targeting any one particular deficiency anyway.