As a new mom, you experience a wide range of thoughts and emotions from the moment your baby enters (and becomes) your world. Breastfeeding can bring its share of initial challenges as you and your baby get comfortable with each other. One thing you shouldn’t have to worry about is whether your breastfed baby gets enough vitamin D. We often hear that breastmilk is the “perfect food,” and, for the most part, that is true. The only thing missing? Vitamin D, a critical nutrient that is essential to support your baby’s rapid growth and development.
Breastmilk typically contains low levels of vitamin D. The lack of vitamin D content is in no way a reflection of the quality of your incredible milk. However, it is a reminder that most of us walk around with low vitamin D levels due to insufficient sun exposure and other factors. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to get enough vitamin D through your diet. And, if you cannot meet your individual vitamin D needs through diet or sun exposure, it’s no surprise that your breastmilk will not contain enough vitamin D. It is for this reason that, until recently, the only way for breastfed babies to get enough vitamin D was by giving them daily vitamin D drops. Let’s take a closer look at this vital nutrient.
Why does your baby need vitamin D?
Vitamin D is a power player nutrient. There isn’t an organ in the body that doesn’t benefit from vitamin D. For example, vitamin D aids in the normal process of bone break down and re-growth. It also helps to enhance the body’s ability to absorb bone-building minerals like calcium and phosphorus.
However, that is not all.
Vitamin D also functions as a hormone in the body. Hormones are substances made in one part of the body that travels to other parts to activate cells and tissues. Vitamin D plays a role in nerve signaling and muscle movement. It also aids in inflammation management, immune system functioning, and probably more processes still undiscovered.
What are the best sources of vitamin D?
Cod liver oil, fatty fish, egg yolk, liver, and fortified orange juice or milk are the primary food sources of vitamin D. However, these are not foods that are often consumed in enough quantities to meet recommendations.
There are two forms of vitamin D: vitamin D2 and vitamin D3. Vitamin D2 comes from plant-based and fortified foods, while vitamin D3 comes from animal-based foods. Vitamin D3 is also the form that the body makes from sunlight exposure to the skin. Even in sunny climates getting enough vitamin D to meet your needs from the sun is a challenge. This challenge is primarily because of the importance of protecting yourself against skin cancer by wearing sunscreen.
Vitamin D supplements, in the form of vitamin D3, are recommended to ensure adequate vitamin D levels. There are blood tests that measure vitamin D in the body. The most accurate vitamin D status measurement comes from analyzing the amount of vitamin D traveling in the blood. This measurement is taken in the form of 25-hydroxy vitamin D. Older adults, individuals with darker skin, and obese individuals can be at increased risk for vitamin D deficiency. There tend to be more inefficient or impaired processes for making and utilizing vitamin D in the body in these populations.
How much vitamin D does my baby need?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies (and children through adolescence) consume 400 International Units (IU) of vitamin D. For babies that are fully or partially breastfed, pediatricians have recommended starting daily vitamin D drops within a few days of birth.
Infant formula contains 400 IU of vitamin D, so those who exclusively consume infant formula are not at risk for deficiency. However, infant formula does not provide the other immune protective factors and personalized nutrient balance that breast milk does.
How can I ensure my breastfed baby gets enough vitamin D?
You could try to increase your dietary intake, as noted above. However, most people do not consume enough food sources containing significant amounts of vitamin D to adequately raise vitamin D levels. This leaves two options for you to support your baby’s vitamin D needs: giving your baby vitamin D drops or taking a vitamin D supplement yourself.
Giving babies daily vitamin D drops (that contain 400 IU) is a recommended practice by pediatricians. However, studies have revealed that only 15% of moms actually end up giving these drops consistently. They can contain artificial dyes and are often not palatable to the baby-even when included in pumped breast milk. Babies often gag or spit out the drops, which is messy and frustrating.
Recent research has revealed a simple, safe, and effective solution. According to a 2015 study in Pediatrics by Hollis, et al., if the nursing mom takes 6,400 IU of vitamin D3 in the form of a supplement, it will raise her breastfed baby’s vitamin D level as effectively as giving the baby 400 IU drops. Blood vitamin D levels of babies whose mothers took the 6,400 IU supplement were the same as babies given the 400 IU drops. Prenatal vitamins that many women continue to take while they are breastfeeding do not contain this needed level of vitamin D.
Regardless of which method you choose – supplementing yourself or giving your baby drops – you can be sure that you are giving your baby the needed vitamin D to support his development. If you are having difficulty giving your baby vitamin D drops, talk with your pediatrician about taking a 6,400 IU vitamin D supplement yourself. It is essential to open a dialogue with your health care provider so that you and your baby can be at your best.
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