Baby Vitamins: Essential or Overkill?

If breast milk is the perfect food for infants, as we’re told, why are there baby vitamin supplements? Are they needed, or just some marketing ploy? The messages regarding how to feed and supplement your baby can be conflicting and confusing, especially to new parents. We’ve boiled it all down for you here, so you can spend more time enjoying your little bundle, and less time worrying about your child’s nutrition.

Breastfed Infants

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other health authorities recommend that infants be exclusively breastfed for the first 4 to 6 months of life, and then breastfed with supplemental solid foods until at least 1 year old. Breast milk is thought to be superior to commercial infant formulas not only because it provides compounds that aid immunity, but also because the nutrient content of breast milk changes over time to meet your baby’s specific needs at each stage of growth and development. That being said, breast milk does not always provide adequate amounts some important nutrients.

  • We know vitamin D is an important nutrient for bone growth, but it may have many other roles in the body, including immune support and prevention of diabetes and cancer. Vitamin D is present in low amounts in breast milk, unless the mother takes mega-doses of vitamin D, a practice that has yet to be proven to be safe. Previous generations got vitamin D from sun exposure, but now that we’re all so careful about using sunscreen (and rightfully so) most of us are deficient in this nutrient. The AAP recommends supplementing infants with 400 IU of vitamin D per day starting in the first few days of life.
  • Iron is essential for brain development and normal growth. It also inhibits the absorption of lead, protecting babies from exposure to old paint and other sources of lead. In utero, infants acquire enough iron stores to take them through their first 6 months of life. Premature infants do not have this advantage and will likely require iron supplementation if they are breastfed.

Breast milk contains some iron, and it is highly absorbable, but it’s not usually enough to meet baby’s needs. This is why it is recommended that a baby’s first food, usually introduced around 6 months of age, is high in iron. Examples include:

  • Pureed meat or poultry
  • Iron-fortified baby cereal
  • Cooked and pureed legumes

Not all babies have an appetite for solids at 6 months old, or don’t eat enough of them to meet their iron needs. At the 9-month well visit, the pediatrician will probably test your baby’s iron level. If it’s low, you’ll want to give your baby an iron supplement to ensure he has adequate amounts.

Formula-fed Infants

If you choose to feed your baby formula, you won’t need to supplement with extra vitamins as long as he is drinking at least 34 ounces daily. This will provide adequate vitamin D and iron. Once your baby starts solids, a mixture of formula and iron-rich foods will likely meet his needs, but a blood test at the pediatrician’s office will confirm your child’s iron status.

If you have questions about supplementing your baby, don’t hesitate to ask your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric dietitian who can assess your child’s individual needs and make appropriate personalized recommendations.

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