One of the most common dilemmas of health-conscious mothers is whether or not to give their children supplements. After all, it is easy to get swayed by different kinds of opinions when it comes to your little one’s nutritional requirements. As a mother, you might have a lot of doubts before making any decision. The following questions will provide you all the answers you need so that you can make a well-informed decision about supplements.

Q. What are nutritional supplements? I see a lot of advertisements on television and social media saying that they help a child grow. What do they contain and is it necessary to give one to my 5 year old?

The first thing that you need to understand is there are broadly two types of nutritional supplements out there. One is the kind you pop in your mouth and swallow with water and the other is the kind you mix in milk or water and drink.

The nutritional supplements that come in pill form usually contain only vitamins and minerals, whereas the powder ones contain not just vitamins and minerals but also carbohydrates, protein and fats. There are certain other pills that contain only a single nutrient like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or say vitamin C. The pill supplements typically provide 100% of the daily recommended allowance of the nutrient. These should be avoided unless prescribed by your paediatrician. The supplements that come in powder form and are usually mixed with water or milk, provide about 30-75% of the daily requirements of the different vitamins and minerals.

It is important to mention here that no supplement, be it powder or pill, is a magic potion that will address all nutritional issues of your child, whether you wish to boost his height, immunity or brain function. No supplement can replace the positive effects of a well-balanced nutritious diet and physical activity. So, if you are wondering whether it is necessary to give a nutrition supplement to your child, the answer is that it is not necessary. That is unless he or she is evaluated by a doctor and he or she feels the need to recommend a supplement for growth problems.

Q. My child is 5 years old and is happy and healthy. However, she is shorter than her friends in school. Can I give her any nutritional supplements to help her gain height?

Every child has a different growth pattern and there is a height range that is considered normal for that particular age group. For example, a 5-year-old girl’s height can fall anywhere between 97 cm to 118 cm. Your daughter may be shorter than her friends, but if she falls within this range, she should be fine. However, if she is below the minimum range of height for her age, then you should get her evaluated by a paediatrician for growth issues.

In the absence of any medical issue that is stopping her from growing tall, a good well-balanced diet packed with protein, calcium and iron-rich foods along with physical activity is the solution to your problem. No nutritional supplement can replace these essentials in a child’s life. Jumping around, running around, playing football, swimming, and dancing are good examples of physical exercises that can help a child grow tall. A healthy diet and physical exercises for at least 1.5 -2 hours every day will help your child thrive.

Q. My son is 3 years of age and was a chubby baby. Now, after starting playschool, he gets sick very frequently and has become thin. My friend suggested that I give him supplements to help him put on weight and ward off colds. What nutritional supplement can I give him?

It is normal for a child to fall sick when he starts playschool as he is now exposed to other children. This also happens as a 3-year-old child’s immune system has still not developed completely. It is only by the time that they are 5 or 7 years old that the body’s immune system completely matures. If you think about it, it is only after this age that the number of vaccination shots they receive from the paediatrician reduces. So, every time another child comes into the playschool with a cold, there are high chances that your child may catch it too. But this is alright as these exposures help your child build his immunity.

Here are a few ways to boost immunity:

  • Help your child fight off these infections and build his immunity by providing him with a lunch box that’s packed with foods rich in antioxidants and not a nutrition supplement.
  • No nutrition supplement can replace the wonderful benefits that a well-balanced nutritious diet can provide.
  • An orange juice spiced with ginger when he comes back from school will help him feel energized and at the same time give a shot of vitamin C to fight off infections.
  • Almonds, papayas, kiwis, broccoli, tomatoes, palak, and curd are immune-boosting foods as well.
  • Warm badam milk spiced with a little turmeric and slightly sweetened with organic unbleached jaggery is another wonderful addition to the diet.
  • Washing of hands and face and changing clothes the moment your child comes back from school and before he sits down to eat food can also help to some extent in preventing an infection.
  • Make sure that your child gets enough sleep (11 hours a day) and physical exercise.
  • Usually when children are younger, they are chubby, but they lose all the baby fat as they grow older. So, it is normal for chubby children to become thin as they grow older. However, if you feel that the frequent colds he is suffering from are impacting his weight, do get him evaluated by his paediatrician. If he feels that your child needs a nutritional supplement then he may recommend one to you.

Q. I am very frustrated with my child’s eating habits. He doesn’t eat anything in school and brings back a full lunch box. Will he suffer from deficiencies and should I give him the nutritional powders that you can add to milk and are shown on television?

This is a very common complaint from mothers especially when their children have just started school. Does he eat okay when he is home? Are his growth parameters of height and weight normal and fall within the range for his age group? If yes, then you have nothing to worry about. Your child does not need a supplement. There are some things that you can do to make sure that your child eats his lunch at school. Involve him in his lunch box preparation. Ask him what he wants to eat (give only nutritious options) and ask him to pack it himself.

One of the main reasons children don’t eat their lunch box is the amount mothers pack in them. It can be very overwhelming if the child sees a huge quantity of food packed when he opens his lunch box. So, regulate the amount you pack in and pack only what he can eat. Also pack in two and three different foods in small quantities that can make it fun for him to eat. For example, try carrot sticks and a chapatti rolled up with hummus spread or small coin-sized parathas and a paneer capsicum skewer (cut off the edges of the sharp end of the toothpick) instead of a whole paratha and paneer capsicum sabji. Make his lunchtime fun! Be innovative and see how he polishes off his lunch box.

Q. My son is 5 years old and was born prematurely. He cannot tolerate milk and doesn’t like dahi or buttermilk. He has always been small for his age compared to his classmates and he gags on food sometimes. Whenever he does this, I stop giving him his food. Can I give him a nutritional supplement like a multivitamin tablet?

From your description, it seems that your child may require a detailed evaluation by a paediatrician and a nutritionist. Preterm babies usually have low birth weight. However, this gets corrected in the first couple of years of childhood and they attain what is known as “catch up growth”. If provided with the right amount of nutrition, they usually catch up with their peers and their weight and height become at par with their age equivalent friends. If your child has been unable to achieve this, his paediatrician might be the best person to understand the medical reason for this and can recommend necessary interventions.

  • If your child cannot tolerate milk and has gastrointestinal disturbances like stomach discomfort or pain, diarrhoea, or flatulence after drinking milk, then he may be lactose intolerant. However, milk is a source of calcium and protein that is essential for growing children, especially if your child is a So, you may try other options like soy milk.
  • Since you mention that he doesn’t like to eat curd or buttermilk, his diet might be lacking in these nutrients. A more personalized evaluation by a qualified child nutritionist will help you create a specialized meal plan that will include other food groups to help meet his requirements for protein and calcium. Foods such as sesame seeds, green leafy vegetables, certain pulses, and dried fish are good sources of protein and calcium.
  • To prevent gagging, you can try and give foods in bite-sized pieces and small quantities, rather than large pieces. Children gag on food when they are anxious and are made to hurry up while eating. So, allow him enough time to eat, and advise him to not stuff his mouth. Make sure that he chews his food completely before he swallows it. Also give him foods that have enough moisture in them. For instance, instead of giving him a roti with a dry sabji, pair the roti with semisolid gravy or a dal. Instead of giving him a toasted sandwich, give him a sandwich with fresh untoasted bread slices. Let him take sips of water in between mouthfuls of food. All these hacks will help him eat food comfortably and prevent gagging. However, despite all these steps, if your child still does gag, please get him evaluated by his paediatrician.

If your child does require a supplement, a multivitamin pill might not be the ideal one. Your child may require a specialized nutritional supplement which has calories, protein, along with vitamins and minerals, which will help achieve his growth parameters. However, you should only start with it if the doctor advises.

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