Rickets, a disease caused by a lack of calcium and vitamin D that leads to softening of the bones and bone deformities is reportedly on the rise in the United States and elsewhere. Once the most common nutritional disease of children, Rickets caused bowlegs and other problems such as deformed pelvises. It was first vanquished by teaching mothers to give their infants and children cod liver oil and sunbaths, and subsequently with the vitamin D fortification of milk beginning in the 1930s. So, why has it come back and who is at risk?
People with dark skin have a higher risk, because they need more sunlight to get enough vitamin D. Also at risk are breastfed babies that to do not get vitamin D supplementation, young people who do not consume vitamin D fortified milk, people living in northern latitudes who miss effective sun exposure for parts of the year and others who get neither sun exposure nor vitamin D supplementation and calcium in their diets. Do you spend your time inside playing video games and drinking soda? You aren’t helping your bones.
Cod liver oil and sunshine both provide vitamin D and both were recommended for preventing and treating rickets beginning in the 1920s. The United States Children’s Bureau as well as state and local health agencies began promoting both measures in the childcare advice pamphlets. The Children’s Bureau distributed the pamphlet “Sunlight for Babies” as well as “Baby’s Daily Time Card” meant to be hung near the crib. It listed times for sunbathing and when to administer the cod liver oil in orange juice. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company gave advice booklets to its policyholders including one entitled, “Sunlight the Health Giver.” In winter, families were instructed to keep the baby inside in front of an open window, while manufacturers encouraged the purchase of windows with special glass that let in the sun’s helpful rays or the use of indoor sunlamps. For those without yards or time to watch babies take sunbaths, window cages were designed to hold babies safely out in the open air.
Health experts, government agencies, and manufacturers also promoted giving infants and children cod liver oil. Like sunbathing, it had long been touted as having numerous health benefits, such as preventing anemia, colds, and even tuberculosis. Yet, babies and children hated the taste. The Children’s Bureau tacitly acknowledged this in the second edition of its booklet, “Infant Care,” when it advised: “The mother must not let him know by her facial expression that she does not like the smell of the oil because that will teach the baby not to like it. She must take it for granted that he will like it even if she does not.” Fat chance. As one mother wrote in her son’s baby book about teaching him to take barley water “at least we do not have to force it down as we do the cod liver oil, which he hates. Until his bath he has a strong fish odor for he spits the oil out usually and it gets in his sleeper.”