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Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Children and Infants (Ages 0-5)

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Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Children and Infants (Ages 0-5)

Several nutrients are key to your child’s development. Learn about common nutritional deficiencies in children and infants, and when a supplement may be needed.

Childhood is a time of rapid growth, and nutrition plays an essential part in a child’s mental and physical development. Ensuring that your child gets sufficient nutrients for optimal growth can be stressful! Especially when you know there are common nutritional deficiencies in children and infants. But don’t worry, we have recommendations and tips for different ages to help your child grow to their utmost potential and avoid deficiencies!

Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Infants

A normal, healthy infant grows faster during the first six months than at any other time in their life! Therefore, an infant requires more energy and nutrients to support this rapid growth, and deficiencies can be more likely without some planning. The following includes some key nutrients to be aware of during infancy:

  1. Iron
  2. Vitamin D
  3. Fiber

Iron for Babies/Infants

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Iron is an essential micronutrient during this stage of life, as inadequate intake can negatively alter an infant’s growth and development. Luckily, the fetus builds up iron stores in utero that can last up to six months after birth.

After six months, it is recommended that full-term exclusively breastfed infants have 1 mg/kg/day of iron, preferably from foods (1). Iron-fortified cereals, organic when possible and meats can be used to meet these needs. Parents who formula feed should ensure their infant’s formula is iron-fortified.

Vitamin D for Babies/Infants

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is important for bone mineralization. It ensures the proper absorption of calcium and phosphorus into the blood. Breastmilk contains a very small amount of Vitamin D. Exclusively breastfed infants should receive supplementation shortly after birth. Daily intake recommendations are 400 IU/day until adolescence (2).

Common Symptoms of Vitamin D Deficiency in Kids

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If your child is deficient in Vitamin D, they may have bone or tooth pain. When Vitamin D is very low, it can lead to Rickets.

Vitamin D Drops

Vitamin D drops are a good supplement that meets the DRI (dietary reference intake). Liquid vitamin D loses potency after its opened, so store it in the refrigerator. Formula-fed infants should consume a minimum of 1L of Vitamin D fortified formula per day to meet their daily Vitamin D requirements. (2)

Fiber for Babies/Infants

Start introducing fiber-rich foods at the beginning of your child’s food journey. Complementary solid foods (foods that accompany breast milk or formula) start in baby’s diet at around six months of age.

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Fiber-containing foods should gradually be introduced until they reach a goal of 5 g of fiber per day. Good sources of fiber for this age include legumes, green veggies, and whole-grain cereals. Fruit also contains fiber, but (6) Learn more about fiber in our other article, What is Fiber?.

Symptoms of Fiber Deficiency

If your baby or infant isn’t getting enough fiber, it may lead to constipation or irregular bowel movements. Blood sugar may also fluctuate, and alter your child’s hunger levels.

Essential Nutrients to Prevent Deficiencies in Infants

Nutrient Age Recommendation Daily Sources
Vitamin D Birth 400 IU daily, or 10 mcg/d Vitamin D drops
Iron 6 months 1mg/kg/day Iron-fortified cereals, meats
Fiber 6-12 months 5 g Legumes, veggies, whole grain cereals, and fruit
Source: 1, 2, 6

Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Children (Ages 2-5)

Toddler and preschool-aged children are the two categories that comprise the early childhood stage. This time in life is characterized by a rapid increase in motor skills and social and cognitive development. Therefore, it’s important for children to meet nutrient needs and prevent deficiencies in order to support significant development during this stage of life.

Calcium + Vitamin D for Ages 2-5

During childhood, the body uses Calcium to build bones, and Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption. The recommendations change for different ages:

  • Ages 2-3: 700 mg calcium and 600 IU Vitamin D per day (3)
  • Ages 4-5: 1000 mg/day calcium and 600 IU Vitamin D per day (3)

Milk, cheese, and yogurt are great sources of calcium.

For a 2-3-year-old child, one cup of milk (1%) meets 44% of daily calcium needs, and 4 oz of yogurt (nonfat plain) meets 32%. (5)

For a 4-5-year-old child, one cup of milk (1%) meets 31% of daily calcium needs and 4 oz of yogurt (nonfat plain) meets 23%. (5)

Calcium and Vitamin D-Rich Foods

However, if dairy is an issue, calcium can also be found in calcium and vitamin D fortified plant-based milk. In addition, plant foods like beans, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, and broccoli provide some calcium. Vitamin D can be found in cheese and egg yolks naturally, and fortified foods such as milk, bread, and juices. (11) Vitamin D can also be formed from exposure to sunlight; another great reason to encourage your kids to play outside at least twice a week!

While the importance of calcium is widely discussed, vitamin D is equally important! Vitamin D deficiency is more common than one would think, affecting one in ten children.

Calcium and Vitamin D Deficiency in Children

Deficiency in childhood can have serious consequences including skeletal deformities, brittle bones that lead to frequent fracture, and a greater risk of osteoporosis in adulthood. (12)

Fiber for Ages 2-5

Fiber is essential in childhood because of its ability to reduce constipation. It also has the potential to help lower disease risk, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular and cancers later in life. Increasing fiber in your child’s diet can be easy!

Try using whole grain or bean pasta instead of white, leave the skin on fruits and vegetables, and top whole grain pancakes with apples and berries! Check out these other great ideas to increase fiber.

  • Ages 2-3: 19 g fiber per day (3)
  • Ages 4-5: 25+ g fiber per day (3)

Iron for Ages 2-5

Iron is a critical mineral that helps carry oxygen to the lungs and muscles. It also helps support metabolism, which is important for growth. Recommended intake:

  • Ages 1-3: 7 mg iron daily (3)
  • Ages 4-5: 10 mg iron daily (3)

Types of Iron – Heme vs. Non-Heme

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme sources include meat and poultry, while non-heme sources include fruits, vegetables, and fortified bread and cereals. Although heme iron is absorbed more readily in the body, encourage children to get a variety from both sources! For vegans, including vitamin C-rich food foods to help increase non-heme iron absorption.

key nutrients from food for kids

Essential Nutrients to Prevent Deficiencies in Children

Nutrients Age Recommendation daily Sources
Calcium 2-3 years  

4-5 years

 700 mg  

1000 mg

milk, yogurt, fortified orange juice, cheese, beans, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli
Vitamin D 2-5 years 600 IU, or 15 mcg     Fatty fish, milk, cheese, egg yolk, beef, fish liver oils Fortified: breakfast cereals orange juice, yogurt Sunshine!
Fiber 2-3 years  

4-5 years

19 g  

25+ g

Legumes, green veggies, whole grain cereals, fruit, whole grain pasta
Iron 1-3 years

4-5 years

7mg

10mg

Heme sources: meat and poultry
Non-heme sources: fruits, vegetables, and fortified bread and cereals
Sources: 3, 4, 7, 8, 10

Learning about the many essential nutrients and recommended values of each stage of a child’s development into adulthood may seem daunting but it doesn’t have to be! Start early, and take it one day at a time. A great first step is offering a variety of healthy whole foods while breastfeeding.

Then once you start solids, offer a diet filled with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meats, and dairy (types of dairy allowed vary by age). This will help lower the risk of a nutrient deficiency and decrease the need for supplementation.

By instilling a healthy lifestyle into your child’s foundational values, you will help ensure that they grow into healthy adults that will carry on these values on their own. And, you can have peace of mind that you’re taking proper action to help prevent common nutritional deficiencies in your children or infant.

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