What Is Calcium? 

Calcium is a nutrient that builds strong bones. It helps the body in lots of other ways too. Calcium keeps the nerves and muscles working. It also plays a role in keeping the heart healthy.

Why Do Kids Need Calcium?

We only get one chance to build strong bones — when we're kids and teens. Children who get enough calcium start their adult lives with the strongest bones possible. That protects them against bone loss later in life.

Young kids and babies need calcium and vitamin D to prevent a disease called rickets. Rickets softens the bones and causes bow legs, stunted growth, and sometimes sore or weak muscles.

Where Does Calcium Come From?

Calcium is found in food. Some foods are very high in calcium. Dairy foods like these are among the best natural sources of calcium:

  • milk
  • yogurt
  • hard cheeses, like cheddar

The percentage of fat in milk and other dairy foods doesn't affect their calcium content — skim, 1%, 2%, or whole all have about the same amount of calcium. Your health care provider will let you know which type of milk is right for your child.

Of course, some kids can't eat dairy. They have to get calcium from other foods, such as:

  • calcium-set tofu
  • edamame (soybeans)
  • broccoli, collard greens, kale, chard, Chinese cabbage, and other leafy greens
  • almonds and sesame seeds
  • white beans, red beans, and chickpeas
  • oranges, figs, and prunes

Because calcium is so important, food companies often add it to cereal, bread, juice, and other kid-friendly foods.

How Much Calcium Does My Child Need?

Calcium is measured in milligrams (mg). We need different amounts at different stages of life. It's best if kids get most of their calcium from food. If that's not possible, health care providers might suggest a calcium supplement.

Babies

Babies get their calcium from breast milk or formula:

  • Babies younger than 6 months old need 200 mg of calcium a day.
  • Babies 6 to 11 months old need 260 mg of calcium a day.

The only types of milk babies should have are breast milk or formula. Don't give cow's milk or any other kind of milk to babies younger than 1 year old.

Kids and Teens

Kids need more calcium as they get older to support their growing bones:

  • Kids 1 to 3 years old need 700 mg of calcium a day (2–3 servings).
  • Kids 4 to 8 years old need 1,000 mg of calcium a day (2–3 servings).
  • Kids and teens 9 to 18 years old need 1,300 mg of calcium a day (4 servings).

How Can I Help My Child Get Enough Calcium?

Babies get all their calcium from breast milk or formula. Young kids and school-age kids who eat a healthy diet with plenty of dairy also get enough. But preteens and teens may need to add more calcium-rich foods to their diet.

Try these tips to make sure kids and teens get enough calcium:

  • Make parfaits with layers of plain yogurt, fruit, and whole-grain cereal.
  • Make smoothies with fresh fruit and low-fat milk or calcium-fortified soy or almond milk.
  • Add fresh fruit or unsweetened apple butter to cottage cheese or yogurt.
  • Add a drop of strawberry or chocolate syrup to regular milk. Avoid store-bought flavored milk drinks because they can have a lot of sugar.
  • Sprinkle low-fat cheese on top of snacks and meals.
  • Add white beans to favorite soups.
  • Add sesame seeds to baked goods or sprinkle on vegetables.
  • Serve hummus with cut-up vegetables.
  • Add tofu to a stir-fry.
  • Use almond butter instead of peanut butter.
  • Serve edamame as a snack.
  • Top salads or cereals with chickpeas and slivered almonds.
  • Serve more dark green, leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, collard greens, or Chinese cabbage) with meals.

Kids who can't eat dairy may not get enough calcium. If your child has lactose intolerance, a milk allergy, or eats a vegan diet, talk to your health care provider about calcium and vitamin D.

What About Vitamin D?

People need vitamin D to help the body absorb calcium. Without it, calcium can't get where it needs to go to build strong bones.

Vitamin D isn't in many foods that kids eat. Because of this, health care providers often recommend supplements.

Babies who have only breast milk may need a vitamin D supplement. Baby formula has vitamin D added, so babies who drink more than 32 ounces of formula a day don't need extra vitamin D.

Ask your health care provider if your baby or child needs a vitamin D supplement. 

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2019 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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