Breast milk or fortified formula contains all the nutrients and water needed for your baby during the first 6 months of age. The World Health Organisation recommends starting a baby on solid foods around 6 months.
However, many paediatricians recommend that babies begin a vitamin supplement around that time too, specifically one that contains additional iron, vitamin D, omega 3 (DHA), vitamin B12 and probiotics.
But are supplements for babies really necessary?
Is there a difference between breastfed babies and formula fed babies in terms of extra supplementation needs? What about prematurely born or low weight babies – do they need extra supplementation?
Supplements for babies: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is found naturally in a few foods including fatty fishes & fish oils (salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, cod liver oil), liver and egg yolk, but is best formed and absorbed in the body when we are exposed to direct sunlight.
Studies have shown that babies being breastfed by malnourished women or those who lack sufficient exposure to sunlight may be deficient in vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency will lead to rickets (a softening of bones in children).
Your baby may need Vitamin D supplementation if any of the following applies to you:
- Your baby has very little exposure to sunlight
- You and/or your baby have dark skin – Darker skin means that more sunlight exposure is needed to generate Vitamin D in our bodies
- You were/are deficient in vitamin D – If the mother is not exposed to sunlight and does not drink/eat dairy products that are high in Vitamin D, she may be deficient
- If your baby was born prematurely, at a low birth weight or small for gestational age, consistently drinks less breastmilk or formula than other babies his age and doesn’t make up the difference with food, or has chronic health problems that affect his ability to eat.
Supplements for babies: Iron
Healthy, full-term babies have enough iron stores in their bodies to last for at least the first 6 months of their life. The iron found in breastmilk is absorbed better in your baby’s body than that from other sources (supplements or fortified formulas).
So which babies are at risk of developing anaemia?
- Premature babies (your baby’s iron stores are set during the last trimester of pregnancy)
- Babies with low birth weight
- Babies born to mothers with poorly controlled diabetes
- Babies born to anaemic mothers
Interestingly though, the introduction of iron supplements and iron-fortified foods, particularly during the first 6 months, reduces the efficiency of baby’s iron absorption.
As long as your baby is exclusively breastfed (and receiving no iron supplements or iron-fortified foods), the specialised proteins in the breastmilk ensure that your baby gets the available iron instead of bad bacteria feeding off the extra iron (the bad bacteria thrive on the free iron in the gut).
In addition, iron supplements can overwhelm the iron-binding abilities of the proteins in breastmilk, thus making some of the iron from breastmilk (which was previously available only to baby) available to bacteria.
Supplemental iron during the first 6 months can also interfere with zinc absorption and cause digestive upsets in babies.
Iron for babies after 6 months
Once your baby starts taking solids, she should be offered foods that are naturally rich in iron, rather than iron-fortified foods.
Among the foods that are high in iron are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Meat and poultry
- Seaweed (organic) and kelp
- Greens (e.g. spinach, parsley, watercress)
- Grains (millet, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, wholegrain bread)
- Dried beans (lima, lentils, kidney)
You may wish to give your baby foods high in vitamin C together with iron-rich foods, since vitamin C increases iron absorption.
Note: Vitamin D and iron levels can be checked by a blood test administered by your baby’s paediatrician.
Supplements for babies: Probiotics
The gut of your baby is the centre of their immune system. Nourishing the delicate ecosystem in your baby’s gastrointestinal tract is one of the most important ways you can boost your baby’s health, and giving an infant probiotic supplement is the best way to do so.
Babies inherit gut flora (good bacteria) from their mother via the birth canal. If the mother has gut imbalances or the baby was born via C-section, the baby may also
Research shows that there are some friendly bacteria (also known as “probiotics”) that help our bodies to function. | Photo: iStock
have gut imbalances. Digestive difficulties (not having enough good bacteria) will manifest as allergies, bloating, gas, constipation, colic and reflux.
Note: A probiotic specially designed for infants should be used for babies, since they require different amounts and strains.
Supplements for babies: Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is critical for the development of the nervous system and for the prevention of anaemia. It is naturally found in fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk and dairy products.
If you’re a breastfeeding vegan mum or if your child is on a vegan diet, it’s important to have a regular and reliable source of vitamin B12 – whether it’s from a supplement or fortified foods. This helps to ensure that your baby’s diet contains adequate amounts of vitamin B12.
Supplements for babies: DHA, Omega 3
DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is important for the immune system, brain and eye development.
Generally, it is safe to start your child on DHA supplements after 6 months. Breastfeeding mothers who don’t consume a dietary source of DHA may want to consider taking a supplement.
The same goes for vegetarians and their infants who are on a vegan diet, as they have been found to have lower blood levels of DHA than those who eat meat.
* If you follow a vegan diet, tell your baby’s healthcare provider. Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids are nutrients that vegan mums and babies may need to make an extra effort to consume through diet or a multivitamin-mineral supplement.
Are your kids taking vitamin and mineral supplements? If so, which ones do you give? Share with us by commenting below.
For further questions on supplements for babies or nutrition for your family, you may contact Karin at [email protected].
About Karin Graubard-Reiter & Nutritious N’ Delicious
Nutritious N’ Delicious was born out of love and the passion of helping people to take charge of their health through simple strategies. Founded by Karin G. Reiter in 2011 in Australia, Nutritious N’ Delicious is now successfully operating in Asia. Through Nutritious N’ Delicious, Karin hopes to bring to light the importance of natural, simple, organic and nourishing foods and educate others about them.
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