Like all nutrients, vitamin A plays an important part in a varied diet, but it's important not to overdo it. So what are the facts?
Why is vitamin A important for children?
The legend that carrots are good for your eyes is true! Vitamin A (found in colourful vegetables) helps to keep the eyes healthy and maintains good vision. In its alpha-carotene and beta-carotene forms (which can be processed into vitamin A by the body), it is a useful antioxidant.
Vitamin A is also good for general body growth and the health of your child's skin, and a lack of it can make a person more prone to infections. It can be good, too, for your child's lungs and gut.
What foods contain vitamin A?
Vitamin A can be found in different forms. In dairy products and oily fish, it is found as retinol. It is also found in liver, but due to its strong taste, babies and children do not tend to eat offal.
Alpha-carotenes and beta-carotenes are found in orange and yellow vegetables, as well as red and dark green fruits and vegetables.
Should I give my child a vitamin A supplement?
Excessive vitamin A intake can prove toxic (and intake should also be limited for pregnant woman), though a normal diet would not usually cause this. However, this does mean that having extra vitamin A is unneccessary.
In the case of any nutrient, unless your doctor identifies a specific deficiency, it is always preferable to take in vitamins and minerals through natural food sources rather than supplements.
Beta-carotene is processed by the body so that excess is expelled naturally, but regular retinol vitamin A is not so easily dispersed and will be stored by the liver.
How should I get the right vitamin A into my child's diet?
Carrots are a wonderful source of vitamin A, especially because of the other nutrients they hold, their sweet, usually mild taste, and their colourful appearance to brighten any meal.
For babies, mushed carrot is a great first weaning food. For toddlers, steam carrot or mash it with potato or in rice. When you feel your child is safely beyond the danger of choking, carrot sticks are a great snack (cooling and refreshing in summer), and can be offered with a tasty dip like hummous.
Other great sources of vitamin A include egg, spinach, pumpkin, broccoli, melon and apricots. Dried apricots are a great snack for small children (and are also rich in iron, which many babies lack in their normal diet). However, try to get ones that are dried without the use of sulphur - these look darker and less yellow but don't lack in taste.
The recommended daily amounts are unlikely to be exceeded in a normal diet, though excessive eating of carrots it most likely to cause organgey skin at worst. For babies under one year, the maximum (350 micrograms a day) is unlikely to be exceeded. In children under three years the maximum is 400 micrograms, and the maximum for a child up to six years old, is about 500 micrograms.