All babies should be given vitamin D
All parents with babies under 12 months of age are being advised to give their infants a daily vitamin D supplement.
The advice has been issued by the HSE, Department of Health and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, but is present in very few foods. It is also known as the sunshine vitamin, because it is made in the body when ultraviolet rays from sunlight strike the skin. However, Ireland's northerly latitude and lack of winter sunlight means that we cannot make enough vitamin D in this way.
Severe and prolonged vitamin D deficiency can cause softening of the bones or bone deformities, known as rickets in children or osteomalacia in adults.
Rickets in children was a problem in Ireland up to the mid 20th century, but due to better nutrition in our population over recent decades, it was thought to have been eradicated. However, a number of cases of the condition have been seen here in recent years.
According to Dr Mary Flynn, of the FSAI, the cases of rickets that have been seen here ‘are likely to be the tip of the iceberg and indicate that there is a wider, undetected level of vitamin D deficiency in our population'.
Meanwhile, less severe vitamin D deficiency also affects bone health and may increase the risk of osteoporosis. Some studies have even linked it to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
Babies need a daily supplement of vitamin D because their delicate skin cannot be safely exposed to the sun and because their diet alone does not provide enough of the vitamin to ensure healthy bone growth.
According to the HSE, all babies in Ireland who are up to 12 months of age should be given a daily supplement of five micrograms of the vitamin. This advice applies to both breastfed and bottlefed babies.
"The introduction of vitamin D supplementation for all infants from birth to 12 months will benefit all infants immediately and in years to come will improve our population's bone health and prevent chronic illness," commented Dr Teresa Bennett, a senior health promotion officer with the HSE.
She added that vitamin D supplementation for infants is already common in other countries, including a number of countries across the EU.
The introduction of this policy will see HSE staff and healthcare workers, such as paediatricians, midwives, public health nurses and GPs, routinely informing pregnant women and parents of the need to give their infant a vitamin D supplement.
However, the HSE emphasises that multivitamin products are not recommended for babies. A number of vitamin D-only products that are suitable for infants are available for purchase in pharmacies and other locations across Ireland. A prescription is not required.
It is important that parents carefully read the packaging and instructions for the product they purchase, as each one can require a different amount of product to deliver the required five micrograms of vitamin D.
The HSE has set up a dedicated web page (www.hse.ie/go/vitaminD) to provide information to parents and health professionals. An information leaflet for parents and factsheet for professionals is also available from the HSE's information line at 1850 24 1850.
[Posted: Tue 22/02/2011]