Pregnant women and mothers breast-feeding their babies are being advised by the Government to boost their intake of vitamin D in the winter to prevent their child suffering rickets or seizures. The alert was issued by the Department of Health after reports by healthcare workers that more children were being seen with a vitamin D deficiency that can lead to bones not developing properly.

The vitamin deficiency was thought to have been eradicated in Britain in the 1950s. But many cases of rickets are being found now in Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Middle Eastern children with some research suggesting it could be as high as one in 100 children in ethnic minority groups.

Vitamin D can be gained from exposure to 15 minutes of sunlight to the arms, head and shoulders during the summer months. Dark-skinned people do not absorb as much sunlight through the skin, and in a number of ethnic groups there is often cultural pressure to keep skin tones pale.

In the winter months, foods such as oily fish, eggs, fortified cereals and bread can provide enough of the vitamin alongside the body's own stores. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under four may also benefit from a supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D, the department said.

It urged women to contact their GP for a blood test if they think they may be lacking the vitamin.

The Health minister, Dawn Primarolo, said women should check if they are eligible for the Healthy Start scheme, which distributes vitamins to adults and children. "We particularly encourage women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to take vitamin D to protect the health and wellbeing of their baby and help them get the best possible start in life," she said.

Dr Colin Michie, a paediatrician at Ealing Hospital in west London, said the biggest issue regarding rickets was a shortage of vitamin D intake by expectant mothers.

"We are seeing significant numbers of children with vitamin D deficiency," he said. "Mothers and babies are simply not getting enough of this important vitamin. Most pregnant and breastfeeding women should take a vitamin D supplement to ensure that babies get the best start in life. Babies receive vitamin D from their mothers while in the womb, and then from breastmilk until they are weaned. If a pregnant or breastfeeding woman is lacking in vitamin D, the baby will also have low vitamin D and calcium levels which can lead them to develop seizures in the first months of life."

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