This is a question that I've regularly asked myself over the years and one that I hear often in my Facebook group: Does my toddler need a multivitamin? Turns out, it's a harder question to answer than it seems. And I think I've figured out the real question here:
How can I prevent my toddler from catching all of the yucky colds and sicknesses this winter?
So this is less to do with covering nutritional bases, usually, and more to do about preventing illness. Because little ones who aren't feeling well are a handful. And for good reason—they can't do much to make themselves feel better, they don't always understand why they feel so crappy, and they don't know that they will, one day, feel better again. Plus, when our kids feel badly, we moms do too. (Not to mention the logistical challenges of taking time off from work.)
So we of course want to be proactive and help them feel better. Or prevent them from getting sick in the first place. Here's the rundown on whether the common ways we try to boost immunity actually help.
*NOTE: Always talk to your pediatrician before giving a supplement to your child, especially if they are very sick and might have an underlying illness. This post is not meant to be a substitution for medical advice.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that kids who are eating a balanced and well-rounded diet don't need a multivitamin. If you're wanting to add more nutrient dense foods to your family's diet to get closer to ideal of "well-rounded", think smoothies with packed with berries and greens, sweet potatoes, broccoli, wild salmon, black beans, kale, and generally the more fresh, brightly colored produce, the better.
Remember: Supplements aren't approved by the FDA, so you really need to trust the brand if you opt for one if you worry that your kids aren't hitting their nutrition goals. And be sure to read the serving size thoroughly since they vary widely—and bring it to your pediatrician for help if you aren't sure of the right dose. If you decide to offer a multi-vitamin, some brands to consider are The Honest Company, Zarbees and Olly.
- Vitamin C
The same advice holds here—a vitamin C supplement isn't necessary if your kids are eating a balanced diet. Vitamin C, along with vitamins A and D, can be toxic when given in high doses, so you need to know how much is too much with this supplement. The recommended daily amount for kids aged 1-3 is 15 mg. And since a Vitamin C supplement has been shown to reduce the duration of a cold by only 1 day, it's not as potent as we might have thought. When in doubt, I turn to actual foods. Vitamin C rich foods include citrus fruits, green peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, kiwi, mango, broccoli, tomatoes, and more.
- Vitamin D
The AAP does recommend 600 mg of Vitamin D though for kids over 1. We drink vitamin D fortified milk and are outside almost every day, but it's still possible that we're not getting enough since we use sunscreen. A Vitamin D deficiency can lead to bone fractures and bone softening, If you give a multivitamin, check that it has the right amount. If you don't give a multivitamin, consider a separate supplement or plan to discuss this at your next check up.
A lot of research is still being done on probiotics, but they are generally considered safe to give to kids. They seem to help most with helping to shorten bouts of upset tummies and may help lessen eczema caused by milk allergies. Some parents give them to help increase healthy gut flora and overall wellness. Ask your pediatrician for their thoughts if you are considering a probiotic. Two brands to try are Jarrow and Culterelle. We're planning to start giving L one this winter.
- Fatty Acids
Some research has shown that increased intake of Omega 3 fatty acids can help with everything from mental ability to memory and most kids aren't getting the recommended amounts. Doctors generally recommend that we get nutrients from foods first, so try incorporating wild salmon, flaxseed oil, and a range of nuts into your family's diet. And check this chart for the recommended daily intake if you're considering a supplement.
You may have heard that local honey can help with allergies (some experts think so, some don't give it much credit), but it can also soothe a sore throat. If your little one is over 1 year of age and has a sore throat, try adding 1/2 teaspoon of honey to warm water to make honey tea. Or just give it to them on a spoon. It can help them feel better and feel like they're getting a special treat when they don't feel well.
- Elderberry Syrup
You can make this yourself from dried berries or buy it ready-made—it's a sweet syrup that many families swear by for staying healthy in the winter. Some initial research has shown that it can decrease the duration of the flu. I tend to err on the side of skepticism with herbal supplements, but we've used this one. (Though I can't say that I've noticed a difference!)
- Flu Shot
To be honest, I've gone back and forth about the flu shot, especially since it's usually only 50-60% effective. But last year, my then 3 year old got the flu and it was MISERABLE. I was pregnant and so worn out from being up all night with her that I lost 4 pounds over a weekend and had to get IV fluids. I also think that it's important for us to have the shot to help those with more fragile immune systems stay healthy. The less flu they are exposed to, the less of a chance they have to get it (and land in the hospital). All of which is to say that I've already gotten my flu shot this season and L will be getting hers in the next few weeks. The nasal spray is not recommended this year for kids, so prepare your kids for a pole if/when you take them in.
- Hand Washing
Toddlers (and babies) put their hands in their mouths a lot. They touch their faces all day long. They are in contact with toys that other kids have had near their faces regularly. Which means that hand washing—and a lot of it—is essential. This is likely the single best thing you can do to keep your kids healthy.
At my daughter's daycare, they wash hands before and after each activity change, upon arrival, and I insist that she washes before we leave. (And often again when she gets home). We also do our best to have L change her clothes when she arrives home from daycare and she takes her back up baby doll (you know, the one you use when the favorite one goes missing) to school and leaves her there for naptime. (We wash her weekly with her nap blanket.) This way, she can use a her beloved lovey only at home and reduce bringing germs back and forth, which is especially important to me since we have a baby in the house now.
At home when washing hands, we sing the ABCs (sometimes twice if she goes too fast!) and use warm water and regular soap. When we're out and about, particularly during and after a visit to the library, I use this Honest Company Spray Hand Sanitizer (which doesn't have the same concerns as antibacterial soap).
Ah, sleep. This is often overlooked when it comes to keeping the kids well (and alert, focused, and able to behave). If your toddler isn't getting the recommended 11-14 hours a day (including naps), consider taking steps to help them get more. Move bedtime earlier (sleep often begets sleep), create a more concrete bedtime routine, and insist on afternoon rest time if they've ditched their naps. (It's hard, I know!)
Bottomline: The best things we can do are what we should be doing anyway—good, fresh food, lots of sleep, fresh air, and good hygiene. And maybe extra warm baths, snuggles, liquids, and books when the littles are sick. It's so hard to feel powerless when our little ones aren't feeling well, so I too often have the impulse to do something, anything, to help. Maybe it's good to remember that our kids will inevitably get sick, but when they do, we don't have to run out and buy a cart full of expensive products to make them feel better. (Unless of course your pediatrician tells you to!)
So as of now, L gets a daily probiotic and multivitamin, though I plan to stop giving them to her after we finish the current bottle based on what I learned while writing this post. I take a prenatal vitamin since I'm nursing and a probiotic. That's it. I'm going to focus more on lifestyle and hygiene, and try to be better about accepting that sickness is part of growing up.
What do you guys to do keep your kids healthy during cold and flu season?