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Tara S. Kerpelman/MEDILL

An array of children's vitamins to choose from.

ABCs of kids’ vitamins and minerals

by Tara S. Kerpelman
Feb 04, 2009

Tips on getting the most out of vitamins

Mary Mullen, a registered dietitian at Rush Medical Center, recommends the following pointers on choosing vitamins for children:

• Choose a supplement with a child-proof cap. Keep it out of reach of small children because a lot of vitamins taste like candy. Iron is very toxic so you want to keep that cap on and store it out of reach of the child.

• Give a supplement only in the safe recommended dose. You don’t need to take a vitamin or a mineral that’s exceeded that unless the child has a health condition where maybe they’re not absorbing certain nutrients efficiently.

• Remember that the recommended dietary intakes are based on healthy children. So if there was any medical condition you certainly would want to see if your child had increased needs.

• Remember that supplements are just supplements. Try to get as much as you can from food and then anything else you need from a vitamin or mineral supplements.

• Talk to your pediatrician or registered dietician if you think that your child needs a vitamin or mineral supplement.

The tightly-stocked drugstore shelves of colorful vitamin bottles in varying sizes seem to engulf you in confetti of pills and gummies and liquids and tablets of many different flavors. With so many kinds of vitamins and mineral supplements available, choosing the right ones, especially for your children, can be a very daunting task.

Underweight children and those with healthier, more active lifestyles have the highest use of vitamin and mineral supplements, according to an article published this week in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. But how do you know when your children should be taking them or which ones they will benefit from?

Mary Mullen, a pediatric registered dietitian from Rush University Medical Center, answered some questions on how parents can help their kids get all the nutrients they need.

What are vitamins and supplements and what are the differences between them?

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients that we need in our body in smaller amounts than carbohydrates, proteins and fat. Yet they’re still vital to keep our bodies working properly. They are involved in body processes. Minerals are too, but they are also part of many of our cells, for example in our bones and our teeth for calcium.

What age would you start vitamins or supplements?

I usually recommend with all families that before they start on a vitamin or a supplement that they talk to their pediatrician or a dietitian just to look at their diet and see if [anything is] lacking.
The most important thing I do is let [families] know, “Food First.” You always want to try to meet your needs through what you’re eating in a balanced diet. For example, follow the food guide pyramid so parents, go to

If a child is eating all the servings that they need from the different food groups and they’re getting a variety in their diet they most likely would not have to take a supplement. But unfortunately in this day and age when everyone’s so busy and we may turn to fast food more than we had in the past, I find that I’m recommending vitamin and supplements more than I ever did before.

But I emphasize that it doesn’t mean that they don’t have to try to still get all the vitamins and minerals from their diet.
Do the medical benefits differ based on someone’s lifestyle and diet?

If a child is into sports they’re most likely going to be taking in more calories. We found that with any athlete, they’re taking in more calories so they’re probably taking in more vitamins and minerals. So they wouldn’t really need a special supplement, but again it may be that they’re getting more calories from these processed foods, fast foods and so they’re not meeting their [dietary] needs.

Who should you talk to about what to take?

Always talk to your pediatrician about it or talk to your dietitian. You want to see a dietitian who is registered with the American Dietetic Association []. They have some great information and also a network site where you can find a dietitian in your area.

A yearly physical with [your child’s] pediatrician is a good time to write down all your questions and [ask], “Should my child be taking a vitamin?” Maybe all of a sudden your child has become vegetarian and is on a very strict vegetarian diet so that would definitely be a concern.

What is too much?

We really stress that you talk to your pediatrician about this because we know for example that vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin so taking it in excess can be harmful for the body.

With water soluble vitamins, your child will pee out what they don’t need. Whereas with the fat soluble ones, vitamin E, D, K, A, your body will store them.

Are these prescription products?

There are some special ones for medical conditions but you can just get a general kids multivitamin by your pharmacy and they’re safe.

What brands are the best?

Whatever is going to work best for your child. If you have any questions about it your pharmacist would be a good resource.

Would you advise getting these at health food stores or drugstores?

You may be paying a little bit more, but you can find a good supplement in your regular pharmacy. It’s just a preference.

Does insurance cover them?

Not unless there’s a medical condition.

Do you need to eat/drink anything to make sure that the vitamins or supplements are absorbed or processed by the body?

There are certain vitamins like vitamin C that will help with iron absorption, so if the child is anemic or has low iron, I always tell parents if they’re taking an iron supplement, take it with vitamin C and it will help with the absorption.