We count on our bones for supporting our body, helping us to move and protecting our internal organs. Building strong bones during childhood lays a foundation for how healthy your bones will be as an adult.

In fact, Dr. Pilar Bradshaw, at Eugene Pediatric Associates, says childhood is the most crucial time for bone development. A baby’s bones begin to form between the sixth and seventh weeks of gestation and continue to grow and strengthen throughout childhood and adolescence.

“Kids build all the bones they’re going to have for their whole lifetime by the time they graduate high school,” she says. “So, it’s super important for young kids all the way through high school to optimize their bone health.”

Importance of exercise
Parents can help by making sure kids get the three key ingredients for healthy bone development: calcium, vitamin D and weight bearing exercise.

When you participate in activity where your bones are supporting your weight — like walking, hiking, climbing, jumping, and other forms of physical play — the muscles and tendons apply tension to the bones, which stimulates the bones to produce more bone tissue. As a result, bones become stronger and denser.

Role of calcium
When it comes to what your kids eat and drink, Dr. Bradshaw says calcium is a major player in building healthy bones.

“Unfortunately, American kids, on average, don’t get enough calcium because we don’t really eat or drink as much dairy as we used to 50 years ago,” she says.

When we are young, our bodies can store calcium in our bones, but as we get older, we lose the ability to store calcium. By the time a child reaches young adulthood, their bones reach peak bone density, meaning they are as packed with calcium as they will ever get.

In addition to dairy products, the best sources of calcium include beans, some nuts and seeds, and leafy green vegetables. Calcium is also often added to foods like cereal and orange juice.

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers a guide to calcium levels in food.

Vitamin D
Vitamin D is also important to bone health because it helps the body absorb calcium. However, getting enough vitamin D is hard to do here in the Pacific Northwest because our skin can’t absorb enough sunshine daily, especially during the winter — and we can’t get enough vitamin D through food alone. That’s why some doctors say supplements may be needed.

“It’s helpful with the potential deficits in all of our diets to be giving your kids a multivitamin, or at least a vitamin D and calcium,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “You want to be able to absorb those vitamins, so you want that to come as part of a healthy diet.”

If you have questions about how much calcium and vitamin D your child should be getting daily, and how best to provide it, talk with your pediatrician.