American mothers who breastfeed are being advised to add a vitamin D supplement to their infants' diets to ward off the threat of rickets.
"Breastfeeding is the best thing to do for feeding a baby," said Kelley Scanlon, an epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But I would also recommend following the American Academy of Pediatricians' recommendation that the child receive supplements of vitamin D."
While the American Academy of Pediatricians recommended in 2003 that all breastfed babies should receive a vitamin D supplement, the message has not been promoted with much gusto for fear of promulgating a negative view of breastfeeding. "We have to be careful that breastfeeding moms do not see this as something negative about breast milk," Scanlon said.
However, while the marketing job may be a sensitive one, there is little doubt among experts that vitamin D deficiency is a problem that needs greater attention and treatment. "Rickets is just the most severe form," said Laura Bachrach, a pediatrics professor at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. "There is concern that vitamin D deficiency early on in life can have long-term effects on bone density and bone strength."
There is also a racial factor, with most cases occurring among dark-skinned children. In addition to the fact dark-skinned people absorb sunlight less efficiently than fair-skinned people, research has shown black American mothers are less likely to buy supplements for their families or themselves.
Vitamin D, which occurs naturally in only a few foods such as oily fish, is used by the body to absorb calcium in bones. Without it, bones can weaken and become prone to fractures. Other symptoms include retarded physical development, skull soft spots, thick wrists and bowlegs.
Vitamin D was first used as a functional food ingredient in the 1920s when many dairies began adding it to milk.