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Why vitamins are important

Vitamins are essential nutrients that your body needs in small amounts so it can work properly.

Image of mum breastfeeding in library

Even though most people can get all the vitamins they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet, there are certain times in your life when you may not be able to get everything you need from food alone – like when you are planning a pregnancy, when you are pregnant or when you are a new mum. Small children sometimes need extra vitamins.

So health departments recommend that at these times you should take a supplement containing specific vitamins to make sure you get everything you need.

Vitamins for pregnant and breastfeeding women
Vitamins for women

Making sure you have enough of some specific vitamins in pregnancy is important for your own health and for the development of your baby.

Folic acid is important because it reduces the chances of your baby being born with a neural tube defect (NTD) such as spina bifida (a birth defect where the spine doesn’t form properly).

All women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should take a supplement containing 400 micrograms of folic acid a day until the 12th week of pregnancy. It’s also safe to carry on taking folic acid beyond the 12th week of pregnancy. If you don’t take folic acid before you conceive, you should start taking it as soon as you know you are pregnant.

Some women have an increased risk of having an NTD-affected pregnancy and should take a higher dose of 5 mg of folic acid each day until the 12th week of their pregnancy. You have an increased risk if you:

  • have had a baby with an NTD

  • have diabetes

  • (or your partner) have an NTD or a family history of NTDs.

In addition, if you have diabetes or are taking anti-epileptic medicines, you should consult your GP for advice as you may need to take a higher dose of folic acid.

You should also eat foods containing folate (the natural form of folic acid), which is found in foods such as peas, broccoli, spinach, spring greens, granary and wholemeal breads and chickpeas. Some foods such as fortified breakfast cereals have folic acid added to them.

Vitamin C helps maintain healthy tissue in the body. Our bodies can’t store vitamin C, so you need to get some every day. You can find vitamin C in lots of foods, including peppers, broccoli, oranges, kiwifruit and sweet potatoes.

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, keeping your bones healthy and helping to make sure that your baby’s bones and teeth grow strong. Babies born with low levels of vitamin D can sometimes develop softened bones, which can lead to rickets. Taking vitamin D during pregnancy will ensure that your baby has enough stored in their body for the first few months of their life.

UK Health Departments recommend that all pregnant and breastfeeding women take a daily supplement that contains 10 micrograms of vitamin D.

Vitamin D for babies and children
Children's vitamin drops

Vitamin A is important for keeping your child’s immune system healthy, can help vision in dim light and supports healthy skin. Good food sources are milk, cheese and eggs. Foods such as carrots, green leafy vegetables, red peppers and apricots contain beta-carotene, which the body can make into vitamin A.

Vitamins C and D are important too for children. UK Health Departments recommend that all babies aged from six months onwards should be given a supplement that contains vitamins A, C and D,  unless they are drinking 500ml (about a pint) of infant formula a day (infant formula has vitamins added to it). You can continue to give young children a supplement containing vitamins A, C and D until they are five years old, as this will help to make sure that they are getting enough of these vitamins. This is especially important when they are learning to eat a variety of foods and if they are fussy eaters.