When given the choice, the average 5-year-old is more likely to grab a french fry than a broccoli floret. Fortunately, a children's-specific, high-quality multivitamin can help provide crucial, missing nutrients, as well as build an early shield against diabetes, heart disease, and childhood cancers, says Shari Lieberman, PhD, FACN, a clinical nutritionist in New York City. But do children need additional supplements? And if so, how do you know which to choose? Three natural-health experts pinpoint the nutrients kids need and what to look for on a label.
With just 20-100 mg of calcium, most children's multis don't come close to packing in the required amount kids need daily (800 mg for ages 4 to 8 years; 1,300 mg for kids older than 9 years). So if your children don't drink dairy or enriched soy milk, which contain 300 mg per cup, consider supplementing in at least two additional daily doses.
Many multis don't contain iron because it can be harmful if taken in high doses. But youngsters still need it. Your child could get the recommended 10 mg, though, by eating meat, spinach, or fortified cereals, says Marilyn Tanner, RD, a pediatric dietitian at St. Louis Children's Hospital. (Menstruating girls, who need 15 mg daily, are a possible exception.)
Essential for growth and the production of red blood cells (not to mention healthy gums, skin, and hair), folic acid supports nervous system function and repairs DNA damaged by toxins. It also may help protect against leukemia and other types of cancer. A typical kids' dose is 75-150 mcg daily.
Mmm, fish oil. OK, it's not a food tykes typically beg for. But buy a fruit-flavored product and little Sally will gulp it down, says Lieberman. Packed with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), the omega-3s in fish oil help boost brain and eye development, and decrease the risk of aggression, depression, and ADHD. Read labels to ensure that fish oil has been tested for mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Adults aren't the only ones who need healthy gut flora—supplying your child's digestive system with probiotics (good bacteria) may boost her immunity by maintaining a healthy balance within her gastrointestinal tract, says Tara Skye Goldin, ND, of Boulder, Colorado.
In a 2005 study, people who took daily probiotics supplements for at least three months experienced shorter and less severe colds. Chewable probiotics are now made specifically for kids. Aim for 5 to 10 billion live micro-organisms daily, or serve your child Lactobacillus acidophilus-rich yogurt.
Although vitamin A aids immunity and healthy vision, taking too much can be toxic to the liver and can leave bones prone to fracture, says Goldin. A safer option: Beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body, is water soluble and can be excreted, unlike fat-soluble, preformed vitamin A (palmitate or retinol palmitate). Pick a kids' multi with vitamin A obtained solely through 2,100 IU beta-carotene.
During cold and flu season (now!), increase your child's vitamin C intake to at least 1 gram, says Lieberman. Or add a gentle blend of herbs, such as echinacea (Echinacea purpurea) and astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus),an Asian root commonly used as a tonic in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Growing bones need vitamin D, which is found in fortified milk and can be gained through sun exposure—part of why outdoor playtime is so important. Especially if you live in a cloudy climate, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids take a supplement with 800-1,000 IU of vitamin D daily.