If your kid isn’t getting their essential nutrients (like vitamin D, calcium, B vitamins, etc.) and macromolecules (proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber) from food sources, you may need to provide a supplement for them. In other cases, your kid might love healthy food and eat the same foods as parents or caretakers, but if they’re in daycare or school and you want to boost their immune system, you may provide a supplement for that, like probiotics.
Supplementing kids with vitamins, nutrients and probiotics can be challenging when it comes to compliance. Every kid, and their individual tastes, are different. Yes, kids can be picky eaters, but it’s up to us as the “grown-ups” to set good examples. Kids can be very observant. They pick up on everything (and then sometimes try to use it as a bargaining tool). If you’re eating sweets, cookies or other treats after dinner, they will too. If you introduce them to fast foods, processed foods, or other foods that may taste good, but are nutrient lacking, they may request them more often.
On the flipside, if you take certain nutrient supplements, your kid may want some too (and most supplements made for kids do taste pretty good). Or if you’re eating something, your kid may want to eat that too.
The goal is to retain a healthy relationship with food. Explain that we get our energy and special vitamins and nutrients from different foods we get. We need protein, whether from animal or plant sources, so that our muscles can grow, and we can be strong. We need calcium and vitamin D so, our bones can grow and be strong (and also prevent broken bones). We need Vitamin C and D to help prevent us from getting sick. Each of these comes from our food and supplements.
When your kid might need a supplement
- If they’re not eating enough and are struggling with growth
- If they’re getting sick often and need immune system support
- If they are low in a specific nutrient such as iron, B12 or vitamin D
- If they have a medical condition and have been prescribed a supplement
Challenges with supplementation for children
In our house, we have one toddler and two naturopaths, which means we always have supplements around. Monkey see, monkey do is real. At dinner time when I take my supplements, my daughter asks to take hers as well. It’s something that we do together.
Of course, not all kids will easily take things, especially if they don’t taste good. This can lead to a lot of parent/caretaker frustration. The struggle may also end up with them not getting their full dose and therefore having less than optimal treatment results.
- Try to stay consistent with timing. Kids do well with schedules, so supplements can be given similarly.
- Explain to them the reason why they need to take something
- Discuss the reason why dose is important. For example, my toddler loves chewable vitamin C, but the dose for her age is only one tablet per day. Although she thinks they are delicious candies, we talk about how this is actually a vitamin supplement, and she can only have one a day since this is how much her body needs to stay healthy and taking more will give her a tummy ache. (This is actually true since too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea).
Important factors for children’s supplements
- Taste. If it doesn’t taste good, they may put up a fight or get upset.
- Ease of administration. Can they chew it or take it on their own? Are you spoon feeding it to them and it turns into a struggle?
- Keep the situation positive. Techniques that may improve compliance include using positive reinforcement, persuading and reasoning with the child, and involving the child in the process.
Strategies for making supplementing easier
Open strategies are those when the kid knows they’re being given a supplement or medication. This is the preferred strategy to keep up compliance.
- Taste, smell and appearance: Kids generally prefer sweet and salty flavours and dislike bitter and mint flavours. Keep this in mind when choosing a supplement flavour.
- Depending on the supplement, you may be able to crush the tablet or open the capsule. This is not the case for all supplements so please speak to your healthcare practitioner or the company that makes the supplement before doing so. In some cases, the product might not be stable if you alter it, but in others you might be able to add them to small amounts of applesauce, smoothies or yogurt. Just make sure they’re getting the whole, required dose.
- Protein powder can be used to make frozen smoothies without delivering a ton of sugar. These are a huge hit in our house. We make a batch and share it together. Use milk or a milk alternative as the base, add in your protein powder (avoid those with artificial sweeteners) and a handful of frozen berries and/or banana slices.
- You can also hide protein powder or extra fiber (in the form of ground flax seeds) in baked goods such as muffins, pancakes or bars.
- If the taste of a required supplement or medication is really terrible, use something cold like an ice cube or piece of frozen fruit to numb the tongue first. Then they can eat the frozen fruit to help remove any lingering bad tastes.
- Involve your child in the process and/or use play. This takes more time and creativity and may depend on the age of your child. You can have them collect a “special” teaspoon for administering liquids or drops; let them mix together powders into liquids – use a shaker cup and let them shake it. This can work for probiotic powders, protein powders, and non-fizzy powders. Alternatively, you can turn it into a game to persuade them to take it. It could be a magic potion. Or your little one could be their favourite animal and you are the vet giving that animal its medicine.
Bergene EH, Ro TB, Steinsbekk A. (2017). Strategies parents use to give children oral medicine: a qualitative study of online discussion forums. Scand J Prim Health Care. 35(2): 221-8
Ivanovska V, Rademaker CMA, Dijk L, et al. (2014). Pediatric drug formulations: a review of challenges and progress. Pediatrics. 134(2): 361-72