What do children need for healthy bone development?

To build strong healthy bones, it’s important for children to adopt healthy nutritional and lifestyle behaviours. The two most important habits for bone health to encourage throughout childhood are proper nutrition and regular exercise, in particular, adequate dietary calcium and vitamin D, and weight‐bearing activities.

Calcium and bone development

Calcium is necessary for building and maintaining strong bones and teeth, and is especially important during rapid periods of growth and development in children. It also plays an important role in other systems of the body such as the health and functioning of the nerves and muscle tissue. Calcium is found in a variety of foods including dairy products such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, canned sardines or salmon with soft edible bones and calcium‐fortified soy or rice milk.1

However, surveys estimate that about 70% of children are not meeting their recommended daily intake of this important bone‐building mineral.1 This could be due to dietary limitations such as allergies or intolerances, or because many children go through periods of fussy eating, making it difficult to get enough calcium in their daily diet. If you think your child may not be getting the calcium they need to support their growing bones, you may want to consider a calcium supplement.

Vitamin D and strong bones

Vitamin D is also important to form healthy bones in childhood as it’s needed to absorb and utilise calcium in the body. Our main source of vitamin D is through skin exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Very few foods contain significant amounts of vitamin D and it’s hard to satisfy the body’s requirements from the diet alone.

Many factors can affect the skin’s production of vitamin D in children including the use of sun protection, having a darker skin tone, being unable to spend time outdoors or covering up the majority of the body for various reasons such as religion or skin safety. In these cases, a vitamin D supplement may be required to meet their daily needs.

Weight‐bearing exercise for bone health

Any form of exercise is great for children, but the weight‐bearing kind is the best for their bones. Weight‐bearing activities are those that you do while on your feet and force you to work against gravity such as walking, running, dancing, tennis, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. It’s recommended that children between 6 and 17 years old get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day and participate in bone strengthening activities at least three days each week.2 Younger children should be encouraged to play actively several times a day.2