A new health initiative, whereby parents are being advised to give babies daily vitamin D supplements to protect their bones, will benefit all infants immediately, according to a local nutritionist.
Lisa Corbett, a senior community nutritionist with the HSE West, was commenting on the introduction of the new national policy on vitamin D supplementation for infants.
“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,” she said.
“Vitamin D supplementation for infants is common in other countries, and this step for Ireland aligns with similar policies in place in the UK, in Canada and across the EU.”
This supplementation advice from the HSE, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Department of Health and Children recommends all babies in Ireland aged from birth up to 12 months, both breast or formula fed, should be given a daily supplement of five micrograms of vitamin D.
Babies need a daily supplement of this vitamin because their delicate skin cannot be safely exposed to the sun and because their feeds or diet alone do not provide enough of this important vitamin to ensure healthy bone growth.
Known as the sunshine vitamin 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. It is essential for healthy bones but is present in very few foods.
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 was a problem in Ireland up to the mid 20th century. However, due to better nutrition in recent decades it was thought to have been eradicated. However, a number of cases have been seen here in recent years.
Less severe vitamin D deficiency also affects bone health, may increase the risk of osteoporosis, and some studies have also linked it to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
Dr Mary Flynn, the chief specialist in public health nutrition with the food safety authority says the rickets cases that have been reported are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
“They indicate that there is a wider, undetected level of vitamin D deficiency in our population. There is growing evidence that this can increase the risk of conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or diabetes.”
The introduction of the new policy will see HSE staff and healthcare workers routinely informing pregnant women and parents and carers of infants under 12 months of the benefits of vitamin D and the need to give their infant this supplement.
Multivitamin products are not recommended for babies. A number of vitamin D only products suitable for infants are available from pharmacies and other locations. A prescription is not required.
The HSE has set up a dedicated web page which will answer the questions of parents and health professionals and also outlines suitable vitamin D products available in Ireland. An information leaflet for parents and factsheet for health professionals is also available. Log onto www.hse.ie/go/vitaminD for further information or call the HSE Infoline on 1850 24 1850 for an information leaflet on vitamin D.