Another form of micronutrient that is essential for growth and development during this period is the vitamin group, a family of compounds which as their name suggests, has essential roles in maintaining the health of growing tissues. In a similar way to minerals, vitamins are found in trace amounts in most foods, but despite this, are no less important than macronutrients. In fact, like minerals, vitamins help macronutrients to be metabolised properly and regulate a host of tissue functions.
The growing infant requires a daily supply of vitamins, which during weaning, can be obtained from fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and cereals. The more diverse the complementary foods that are chosen during these stages, the more varied will be the range of vitamins that can be provided. Breastmilk provides most vitamins, including both the water-soluble and fat-soluble varieties in an easily digested form.
Vitamin A and carotenoids
Vitamin A is essential for the growth and division of cells. It is particularly important in visual development (also called retinol, because of its abundance in the retina), skin health and maturation of the immune system. It is one of the most crucial vitamins during an infant’s early life, with deficiency presenting a major nutritional problem in developing countries. Complementary foods that include eggs, colourful vegetables (e.g. carrot, corn, sweet potato) and fruits (e.g. banana, mango, papaya, apple), provide retinol together with a host of natural carotenoids such as betacarotene, lycopene and xanthenoids, which accumulate for a longer period and are converted to vitamin A (retinol) on demand.
Infants require vitamin D for calcium metabolism and absorption from the intestine. A dietary shortage of vitamin D causes improper bone formation and rickets, a condition that results in bending of the long bones due to the inadequate absorption of calcium. This was common in the early 1900s although it is rare in industrialised countries nowadays. Vitamin D is supplied by the diet in animal products, as well as through exposure to sunlight which causes vitamin D to be manufactured in the skin although, similar to adults, experts recommend limiting sunlight exposure for infants.
Breastmilk of well-nourished mothers as well as infant formula are major sources of vitamin C. During weaning, vegetables (e.g. tomatoes, corn, potatoes) and fruits (e.g. citrus fruits, mango, and strawberries) also provide significant quantities of vitamin C to the developing infant. In the body, vitamin C contributes to forming connective tissue, maintaining blood vessels, bones and teeth through the formation of collagen, as well as aiding the immune system. The body cannot make vitamin C, so it is an important daily dietary vitamin.
The B-vitamins are a group of eight compounds collectively called the B-complex or B-group. They are comprised of thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12). Each of these vitamins has unique functions in the infant’s body although collectively, they are involved in the production of energy and cellular metabolism, so they work together with carbohydrates and fats. In infants, all B-vitamins are important, however vitamin B12 is of particular interest as birth stores are generally low by around 8 months of age, and levels need to be replenished through foods such as meat and poultry.
Providing a varied diet of complementary foods with breast and/or formula milk to 12 months should provide infants with all the nutrients they need for growth and development. Vitamins have essential roles in specific processes of development and ongoing health.
- United States Department of Agriculture (2009). Infant nutrition and feeding: A guide for use in the WIC and CSF programs. Special supplemental Nutrition Program for women, infants and children
- Leaf et al., 2007. Vitamins for babies and young children. Arch Dis Child. 2007 Feb; 92(2): 160-164. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2083301/