Children need calcium from the start

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, Sept. 18, 2006.)

By Marilyn Tanner, R.D.

Children can protect their bones against the inevitable bumps that come along with being active by getting enough calcium in their diets.

Calcium is essential for the growth and repair of bones and teeth in children. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 60 percent of boys and 85 percent of girls between the ages 9 to 18 don’t get enough calcium, which helps develop strong bones. Getting enough calcium is especially important in those years because most bone mass is developed between the ages of 10 and 18.

Children who have a calcium-rich diet can make a big difference in their health, now and in preparation for adulthood. It’s recommended that kids drink about three 8-ounce glasses of milk daily. They can also get calcium from yogurt, cheese, almonds, some green vegetables and fortified juices, breads and cereals. Natural calcium found in dairy products is better absorbed than the calcium in fortified foods, but those are good alternatives for a picky eater or a vegetarian child.

Toddlers should drink whole milk because they need the fat for growth and brain development. After age 2, ask your child’s physician if you may switch to low-fat or skim milk, both of which typically have just as much calcium per serving as whole milk.

A child’s diet should also provide an adequate supply of vitamin D, which is necessary for the body to absorb calcium. Some good sources of vitamin D are eggs, fortified milk, fortified cereals and moderate exposure to sunlight.

For children with lactose intolerance, some good alternatives are low-lactose or lactose-free dairy products and drops, as well as fortified soy milk and enriched rice milk. For children with milk allergies, calcium and vitamin D-enriched rice milk and/or calcium and vitamin D-fortified soy milk and related products can be used.

For children with milk allergies, consult with the child’s pediatrician and ask for a consultation with a pediatric dietitian to assist in creating a balanced diet.

Children should also take part weight-bearing exercise or activities that require the legs to carry the body weight, which causes new bone tissue to form and makes bones and muscles stronger. This kind of activity includes walking, running, dancing, climbing stairs, jumping rope and playing team sports, such as basketball, soccer and volleyball.

Swimming is not a weight-bearing sport, but it can help build strong muscles, which also helps to build strong bones.

For more information, visit or call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Answer Line at (314) 454-5437.

Calcium guidelines

To make sure your child gets enough calcium each day, follow these recommendations:

  • Newborn to 6 months: 210 mg
  • 6 months to 1 year: 270 mg
  • Toddlers (1-3 years): 500 mg
  • 4-8 years: 800 mg
  • 9-18 years: 1,300 mg

Marilyn Tanner, M.H.S., R.D., L.D., is head dietitian and nutritionist in the pediatric endocrinology and diabetes department at Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Copyright 2006 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.