A child holding their spine.
Rickets disease causes bone deformity, resulting in pain in the legs, pelvis or spine.

Rickets Disease: Why Vitamins Are Vital

Vitamins don’t always come from food. Sometimes getting your vitamins can be as simple as going outside for some sunshine. Along with many other health benefits, getting vitamin D goes a long way to prevent rickets disease.

What Is Rickets Disease?

Children get soft or weak bones from rickets disease, which means your child’s bones can bend or break easily. This disease softens the areas of growing tissue in a child’s bones, which is what causes them to become delicate. Rickets disease is a bone problem generally stemming from a nutritional insufficiency. The usual cause is an extreme and prolonged vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is important as it helps your baby absorb calcium and phosphorus from food. All infants should get 400 IU of vitamin D each day to prevent rickets disease.

Symptoms of Rickets Disease

With rickets disease, your child is prone to developmental issues and physical problems. Common symptoms are a larger abdomen and muscle weakness. There are other symptoms too:

  • Delayed physical growth. Rickets affects the bones, which can impair how a baby or child grows.
  • Skeletal deformities. This may include teeth defects, large forehead, breastbone projection, abnormally shaped ribs, curved spine bowed legs, knocked knees, or widened wrists and ankles. Babies may also have soft skulls.
  • Body pain. Children may have pain in the spine, pelvis, or legs. They may also complain of pain or tenderness in their affected bones.
  • Delayed motor and development skills. Young children may not walk or develop at the rate of other children their age.
  • Fussiness. A baby may be unhappy and inconsolable for reasons you can’t see.

What Causes Rickets Disease?

The biggest reason babies and children get rickets disease is lack of vitamin D or an internal issue where their body has difficulty using the vitamin D properly. In general, people receive vitamin D from two sources: sunlight or food. When our skin is exposed to sunlight, it triggers the body to produce its own vitamin D. There are plenty of foods with naturally occurring vitamin D, like egg yolks or fish oil, but it’s also added to things like milk, juice and cereal. For young babies, they don’t produce enough vitamin D, so it’s added to baby formula, or breastfeeding mothers add it to their breast milk. Some children have a vitamin D deficiency because of lactose intolerance or a strict vegetarian diet.

It’s not just a lack of vitamin D that causes rickets disease. Some other causes of rickets include:

Calcium Deficiency

Vitamin D helps absorb calcium, so if there isn’t enough calcium or enough calcium and vitamin D, a baby may get rickets.

Lack of Sun

Sunscreen is a savior from sunburns, but if a child has sunscreen on all the time outside, their skin doesn’t produce the necessary amount of vitamin D. Your child may not require sunscreen for sunshine in the early morning or right before sunset.

Other Medical Conditions

A child may inherit a disorder that affects vitamin D levels, or they may develop a condition that affects how their body absorbs vitamin D. Some examples are celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney issues and more.

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Treatment Options for Rickets Disease

Treating rickets often depends on the underlying cause of the condition. A few of the treatments are:

Taking Vitamins

Vitamin D and calcium in the right amount usually corrects bone problems that come with rickets disease, showing improvement in a matter of a few weeks. A warning for parents and caretakers: these levels need to be adjusted carefully because too much vitamin D may go far beyond improving rickets and introduce other harmful problems instead.

Supplements and Medication

In addition to vitamins, doctors may direct you to take medications or supplements, including minerals, such as phosphorus. Always get a doctor to advise you on what your child needs rather than hypothesize on your own.

Wearing Braces

If rickets advances to spinal deformities or bowlegs, your doctor may recommend special bracing to position the child’s body appropriately.


In cases with severe skeletal deformities, corrective surgery may be required.

Constant Monitoring

With any treatments, doctors will monitor progress with various testing, including x-rays and blood tests.

How Doctors Diagnose Rickets Disease

You can’t diagnose rickets based on a visual assessment alone. Your doctor will do a full physical exam. In the exam, they will gently press on the child’s bones to check for abnormalities. Blood tests give some more information. In rickets, low calcium and phosphorus levels and high alkaline phosphatase levels are usually present in rickets patients. Bone x-rays will show a clearer picture of where the bones have calcium loss or the bone’s shape is altered. Other tests that help confirm a diagnosis are urine tests and bone biopsies (although biopsies are rare as a diagnostic tool).

Risk Factors for Rickets Disease

  • Mom has a vitamin D deficiency while pregnant. In some cases, a pregnant woman with a severe vitamin D deficiency can give birth to a baby with signs of rickets.
  • Geographic location. Children born in northern areas who receive less sunlight are at a higher risk.
  • Darker skin. When there is more of the melanin pigment in the skin, the skin doesn’t produce as much vitamin D from sunshine.
  • Premature birth. Babies born early usually have lower levels of vitamin D because they have less time to receive it from the mother.
  • Exclusively breastfeeding. Mother’s milk doesn’t have enough vitamin D for babies, so doctors recommend adding vitamin D drops to the baby’s milk.
  • Certain medications. Some types of medications interfere with how the body absorbs or uses vitamin D.

Our skin produces vitamin D in response to the sun’s rays, and luckily most children love to be outside. Make sure you’re protecting your little one from the UV rays, but that they’re still able to benefit from vitamin D.