Vitamin D, and specifically Vitamin D deficiency, has been in the news recently, as the incidence of problems associated with Vitamin D deficiency is on the rise.
Vitamin D is important for everyone and particularly pregnant and breastfeeding women. The question has been raised whether or not breastfed babies should be supplemented with Vitamin D in light of common deficiency.
Health Benefits of Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin required by the body for the proper absorption of calcium and bone growth, control of cell growth, neuromuscular and immune functioning.
Problems associated with Vitamin D deficiency
A deficiency can lead to rickets, a disease in which bones fail to develop properly. Inadequate levels of vitamin D can lead to a weakened immune system, increased cancer risk, (especially colon cancer), poor hair growth and osteomalacia (a condition of weakened muscles and bones). In extreme deficiency, seizures can also occur.
Why the lack of Vitamin D in such a sunny country?
In sunlight, our skin makes Vitamin D. The main reason that babies don’t get enough Vitamin D is that, rightly, we do not expose them to the sun, or if we do, we use sunscreen (as we should though it is unsuitable to use sunscreen on babies under 6 months of age). Therefore, these babies rely on the Vitamin D in their mother’s breastmilk to provide them sufficient amounts.
Dr Morris routinely tests for vitamin D levels in early pregnancy. If your vitamin D level is low, he recommends a vitamin D supplement be taken.
How deficiencies usually occur
- You don’t go outside very often
- You work in a job with very long hours and don’t see a lot of daylight
- You wear clothes that cover up most of your body
- If you have dark skin, your skin needs a lot more sunshine to make the same amount of Vitamin D
- You don’t eat many foods that are high in Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and is contained in few foods naturally: Some foods with high levels include:
- Cod Liver Oil
- Some fish, especially oily fish like herring, salmon, mackerel and sardines
- Some fortified cereals
- Caviar both black and red
- Fortified Soy products
- Salami, ham and sausages (please avoid salami and cold cut meats during pregnancy, however, fine when breastfeeding)
- Fortified dairy products
It is not a good idea to consume too much Vitamin D from food or supplements as it can lead to anorexia, weight loss, polyuria, heart arrhythmias, kidney stones and increased risk of heart attacks. Vitamin D cannot reach toxic levels if created naturally from sun exposure.
Breastfeeding and Vitamin D
A recent systematic review of all literature regarding evidence for achieving maternal Vitamin D status that promotes sufficient vitamin D transfer from mother to infant exclusively from breastmilk concluded that “when maternal vitamin D intake is sufficient, vitamin D transfer via breastmilk is adequate to meet infant needs.”I would advise that if you are taking a vitamin D supplement, you should continue taking this while breastfeeding. If, since going on maternity leave, your lifestyle has changed with regards to time in the sun, then you may consider asking for another vitamin D test (this can be done by the GP too) to check where your levels are.
By Angela Smith
Midwife & Lactation Consultant
Thiele Dor K, Senti Jeanine L, Anderson Cindy M., “Maternal Vitamin D Supplementation to meet the Needs of the Breastfed Infant” A Systematic Review. Journal of Human Lactation, May 2013, Vol 29, No2. PP 163-170.
ILCA’a Inside Track, “Does my Breastfed Baby Need Extra Vitamin D “, Anne Merewood, 2013