Good nutrition in the early years is vital. It is during this time that children create lifelong food preferences and set the foundations for long-term health - making pre-school children far more nutritionally vulnerable at this point than in any other phase of their life. Despite this, many children still aren't getting the balanced diets they need.
Ideally, children should get their vitamins from a balanced, healthy diet that includes:
• Starchy foods like wholemeal bread, pasta, oats and brown rice
• Milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt
• Plenty of fresh fruits and leafy, green vegetables
• Protein such as chicken, fish, meat, and eggs
However, many children aren't consuming balanced, nutrient-dense meals. Picky eaters and children with food allergies or intolerances often don't consume sufficient calories or are reliant on highly processed convenience foods, which are deficient in the vitamins they need to grow and develop.
The 2016 National Diet & Nutrition Survey, an annual survey designed to assess the food consumption and nutritional status of the UK, supported this. It revealed that:
• Children are consuming almost three times more sugar than the daily maximum recommendation (amounting to 13% of their daily calorie intake)
• Intake of added sugars exceeds the recommendation - most notably for children aged 4 to 10
• Consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks (which can leach vitamins and minerals from the body) is still too high
• Average salt intake in children aged 4 to 18 years exceeds recommendations
• Just 8% of children are meeting the 5 a day recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption
• Average consumption of oily fish (one of the best dietary source of Vitamin D) is well below the recommended one portion per week
The role of supplements
Growing children, especially those who don't eat a varied diet, often don't receive enough vitamins and minerals from their food. The Department of Health therefore recommends that all children aged six months to five years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. It is also recommended that babies who are breastfed are given a daily vitamin D supplement from birth. The only children exempt from this recommendation are babies who consume more than 500ml (about a pint) of fortified infant formula a day.
Addressing vitamin deficiencies is a key part of the UK Government's Healthy Start initiative, supporting families with children under the age of 4 years. Women supported by Healthy Start are entitled to free vitamin tablets during pregnancy and until their child is one year old. Children aged from six months to their fourth birthday are also entitled to free vitamin drops.
Healthy Start children's vitamin drops contain:
• Vitamin A: For growth, vision and healthy skin (also found in colourful fruits and vegetables)
• Vitamin C: To help maintain healthy tissue in the body. In a balanced diet most of the vitamin C required can be sourced from fruit and vegetables, but a supplement will help ensure young children get enough - particularly as vitamin C isn't stored by the body.
• Vitamin D: For strong bones and teeth. Babies and young children under the age of 5 are considered an 'at risk' group for vitamin D deficiency - with statistics suggesting that Vitamin D intake for children aged 1.5 to 3 is currently just 20% of the recommended nutrient intake (RNI).
Despite the recognised need for such nutrients, the vitamin scheme is currently underutilised by many parents. Over 500,000 women and children currently benefit from Healthy Start food vouchers, but very few claim their Healthy Start vitamins - meaning the scheme is not fulfilling its potential to address widespread vitamin deficiencies among children and potentially improve the health of future generations.
How to access Healthy Start vitamins
Click here to find phone numbers and addresses for local distribution points around England. You can also ask your midwife or health visitor. Beneficiaries are entitled to one bottle every eight weeks.
Disclaimer: Having too much of certain vitamins can be harmful. Always keep to the recommended dose stated on the label, and be careful not to give your child more than one supplement at the same time.