Our fantastic collaborator Laura Hilton of Hilton Health explains why getting our children outside every day is vital for their health…

The benefits of playing outside are seemingly endless. As well as helping children to develop physically, socially, mentally, emotionally and cognitively, a daily dose of sunlight also acts as nature’s health store, as it gives them a vital Vitamin D dose. Read on to find out more about Vitamin D and how to ensure that your children get enough.

Why do we need Vitamin D?

Vitamin D ensures that we form and maintain healthy bones, enables our immune systems to function properly, potentially improves strength and reduces symptoms of depression. A deficiency has been associated with development of cardiovascular disease, cancer, autoimmune conditions and IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease).  

Where do we get it from?

Our bodies absorb forms of Vitamin D known as Vitamin D2 and Vitamin D3 from either sunlight, our food or supplements that contain them. Our livers and kidneys then process these into forms that our bodies can utilise. Although we’re able to get some sources from food, the best way by far is to get it from the sun. One egg contains an average of 2 µg of Vitamin D, and the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) is 10 µg (400 IU), meaning we would all need to eat at least eight eggs a day to ensure we get our RDI.

This would not only be practically and financially difficult for most people, but it would also lead to large number of calories being consumed daily, which would lead to whole host of other issues. Other foods that contain Vitamin D include oily fish, meat, butter and fortified foods such as breakfast cereal. In the UK our milk is not fortified with Vitamin D as it is in some countries.

What happens if we don’t get enough?

he main condition that Vitamin D deficiency is associated with in children is rickets. (In adults it is osteoporosis.) There has been an increase in cases over recent years, and this is thought to be largely linked to an increased use of sunscreen combined with an increase in the amount of time spent inside. Symptoms of deficiency to look out for include fatigue, achy or painful joints, weak muscles and poor skeletal development.

How much do children and adults need?

Currently the Department of Health’s recommended daily intakes are:

  • Breastfed babies up to one year old: 8.5 – 10 µg
  • Formula-fed babies: None until they’re having less than 500ml of infant formula per day (because infant formula is fortifies with Vitamin D)
  • Everyone over one year old: 10 µg

How can parents make sure their children get the right amount?

As mentioned above although it is theoretically possible to get this amount from food, practically it is challenging.

It is therefore best to either take a daily supplement or to ensure each day every member of the family gets some sun exposure directly on the skin i.e. without lots of layers and sunscreen. Although it’s definitely not recommended to let children spend all day outside on a hot summer’s day without any protection, short periods of time here and there unprotected are beneficial.

The time of year makes a huge difference, as we absorb more Vitamin D3 when the Earth is closer to the sun i.e. in summer. In the winter even if we did send our children outside without layers (which is not recommended) the amount they would absorb would be much lower than in the summer.

Personally I give my children a daily supplement of Vitamin D as an insurance policy to ensure that they get enough. If I was confident during the summer months that they would get a short period of unprotected time in the sun every day I could decide to drop this supplementation down. However although Vitamin D toxicity is possible, it is highly unlikely. I therefore feel comfortable with them getting 50 per cent of their RDI from a daily supplement. We are creatures of habit and I worry that if I had switched between using it and not using it, I would forget entirely during periods of stopping. Besides this my children take theirs in a multivitamin that contains a range of other vitamins and Omega 3 that they need every day throughout the year.

So as the sunny days set in, encourage your children to get outside and ensure they spend a small amount of time outside each day without layers and sunscreen.

To find out more about Vitamin D go to https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-d/