Most people think of rickets as an obsolete disease from the distant past. In fact, rickets has made a noticeable comeback in the last decade, and is a disease that any parent of a new baby needs to be aware of. So what exactly is rickets, and how is it diagnosed?
What is Rickets?
Childhood rickets is a result of a Vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D needs to be present in order for the blood to absorb enough calcium and phosphorus from the food we eat. If there is not enough Vitamin D to allow this to happen, the body takes calcium and phosphorus from the bones in order to maintain the correct levels in the blood. This softens and weakens the bones.
What Causes a Vitamin D Deficiency?
The human body creates Vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. As our knowledge about sun damage and skin cancer has increased, we are more likely to keep children out of the sun at all costs. Most infant formulas are fortified with Vitamin D, so if your children are fed formula they should get their recommended level. Unfortunately, human breast milk contains very low levels of Vitamin D, regardless of the mother's own levels. Also, if you give your children soy or rice milk, rather than dairy products, they may not contain Vitamin D. In rare instances, a person may have a genetic disorder that cause them to be unable to properly absorb calcium and phosphorus into their bloodstream.
How Can You Tell if Your Child is at Risk for Rickets?
A baby suffering from rickets may show signs of stunted growth and bone or muscle pain. If the condition is not remedied, as the child attempts to start to stand and walk, the bones will bend under their body weight and be more likely to fracture. The teeth will grow in soft and be more prone to cavities. A child left untreated may develop skeletal deformities like a curvature of the spine or their legs may become bowed.
How is Rickets Diagnosed?
Your pediatrician can diagnose rickets by doing a blood test to determine the levels of calcium and phosphorus in the blood. They can also do an x-ray to look closely at the shape and strength of the developing bones.
How is Rickets Treated?
Since rickets is due to a Vitamin D deficiency, it is treated by increasing a child's intake of Vitamin D. At first, this will most likely be accomplished by administering a supplement, to make sure the correct dosage is being given. Nutritional counseling to ensure the parent is aware of how to provide adequate Vitamin D in the diet is also key. If no skeletal deformities are present yet, increasing Vitamin D consumption will gradually strengthen bone material and prevent permanent damage from occurring.
How Can I Prevent Childhood Rickets?
If your child is being fed enriched formula or dairy products, Vitamin D deficiency should not be an issue. If you breast feed, you should also provide the baby with a Vitamin D supplement, usually in the form of drops. Consult with your pediatrician to determine which supplement to use. If you feed your children dairy substitutes, like soy products or rice milk, consult the labels of these products to see if they contain added Vitamin D.
If you are at all unsure that your child's diet is providing them with all the nutrients they need, including Vitamin D, ask your pediatrician about it the next time you schedule a visit. Providing your children with balanced nutrition, and teaching them how to eat healthy for life, is one of the most important things you can do for them.