Calcium helps build healthy bones during childhood and adolescence. Ensuring a child gets enough calcium during this critical time can help her start adulthood with the strongest bones possible. Healthy bones can decrease her chances of experiencing bone osteoporosis—a condition that can lead to brittle, easy-to-break bones. Encouraging your child to drink an adequate amount of milk and incorporating dairy products into healthy snacks throughout the day can boost her calcium consumption and help her get enough of this critical nutrient.
Although calcium intake is important throughout the childhood years, it becomes especially critical during the tween and teen years when their daily calcium needs almost double. According to Milk Matters, a public health campaign sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to promote calcium consumption in children, over 90 percent of a teen’s bone mass is established by the time he finishes his growth spurts at 17. Milk Matters notes that fewer than one in ten girls and one in four boys gets the calcium they need to build healthy bones and teeth.
The calcium needs of children depend upon their ages. Babies under 1 year usually need relatively little calcium—210 milligrams a day from birth to 6 months and 270 mg from 6 months to a year. The current recommendations cited by the National Institutes of Health are that 1- to 3-year-olds need about 500 mg daily, 4- to 8-year-olds need 800 mg and 9- to 18-year-olds need 1300 mg.
Good Sources of Calcium
Although milk and dairy products make good sources of calcium and Vitamin D, other foods can also provide plenty of the nutrient. Look for calcium-fortified juices and breads on your supermarket shelves—these make an easy way to sneak some calcium into non-milk drinkers. Tofu and beans contain high amounts of calcium, as do green vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy and collard greens.
Some kids cannot eat dairy due to milk allergies or due to a dietary condition called “lactose intolerance,” which makes them unable to digest the sugars in milk and other dairy products. This can lead to diarrhea, stomach cramps and other unpleasant digestive symptoms after they drink milk or eat other dairy products. Dr. Mary Gavin, a medical editor at the Kids Health from Nemours website, urges parents to talk to their child’s doctor if they suspect lactose intolerance in a child. The doctor can often recommend special tablets that can help lactose-intolerant children eat dairy products.
As your child or teen grows older, he might choose to drink soda or other caffeinated beverages instead of milk. These types of beverages can cause him to get even less calcium, since they interfere with the body’s absorption and ability to use the nutrient. Stock the fridge with low-fat dairy products and calcium-fortified juices to encourage him to drink them as an alternative to sugary sodas.