(Annnnd this is why we don’t always share our child-rearing plans with others, right?)
These days, with the increasing popularity of plant-based diets, it’s far more accepted to bring your child up on a diet free of animal products.
In fact, according to a 2016 position paper from Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, appropriately planned vegetarian diets (including a vegan diet) can be healthful and nutritionally adequate for people of all ages — including infants and children.
Still, it’s important to know that raising a vegan baby does come with some risks and may not be suitable for all children. Here’s everything you need to know about raising your child on a vegan diet as a baby, toddler, and beyond.
For most kids, yes! “In general, it’s safe and healthy to offer a plant-based diet [for this age range],” confirms pediatric dietitian Amy Chow, RD.
Of course, for your child’s first several months, they’ll need only one type of food: breast milk or formula. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solids around 6 months of age.) While some vegan soy-based baby formulas do exist, they can be hard to find.
The good news, though, is that breastfeeding is compatible with a vegan lifestyle. Although breast milk is technically an “animal” product, because it is human milk made for human babies, it poses no ethical conflict.
Even when do you introduce solids, keeping animal products off the high chair tray doesn’t have to be problematic for your child’s health and safety. However, meal planning probably won’t be as simple as it would be for omnivores.
For all diets, it’s important to keep the three macronutrients in mind: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. But for vegan babies, the right amounts of protein and fat are especially critical.
“Protein is usually met through a vegan diet, but only if animal proteins are adequately replaced by plant-based proteins (i.e. beans, peas, lentils, tofu, nut/seed butters),” says Chow.
Use caution with feeding your child low-protein vegan milk alternatives like almond, coconut, or rice milk, too. “These aren’t recommended for babies and toddlers, as they will fill up their tiny tummies without much nutrition.”
Getting enough fat also supports growing baby bodies and brains. When introducing solids, Chow suggests sticking to healthy plant-based sources of fat, such as vegetable oil, nut and seed butters, hemp hearts, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, and avocado.
Unfortunately, foods that provide DHA omega-3 fatty acids (the kind that contribute to neural and cognitive development in babies) come primarily from animals.
After your child is weaned from breastfeeding or a DHA-fortified formula, talk to your doctor about the possibility of a DHA supplement.
The nutrients of concern on a vegan diet are, of course, those that come in smaller amounts in plants than in animal foods. These include (but aren’t limited to) vitamin B12, iodine, iron, and calcium.
Vitamin B12 is a micronutrient found in meats, eggs, and dairy products. Many fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and soy milk, are enriched with B12, so take care to offer plenty of these to your baby.
As for iodine, although seafood, eggs, and milk products are among the best sources, you can find it in some cereals and grains. However, this is one nutrient you may need to supplement in your child’s diet, partly because much of our dietary supply comes from fortified salt.
“Plant-based diets can be low in iodine, and because added salt is not generally recommended for babies under 12 months, vegan babies may be at risk for iodine deficiency,” Chow says.
And there’s good reason why you’ll often see iron touted as an important mineral for growing babies. “Iron needs for babies are highest from 7 to 12 months due to the rapid growth rate,” Chow explains.
However, non-heme iron from plant-based sources has low bioavailability (has less of an active effect in the body). And the higher amount of fiber from a vegan diet — specifically, certain compounds found in grains and beans — may actually decrease that active effect even more.
Chow shares some helpful strategies: “Combine non-heme iron (i.e. lentils, peas, beans, ground seeds, seed butters, tofu) with a source of vitamin C, use a cast iron pan for cooking, and offer iron-fortified baby cereal.”
Last but not least, we’d all probably point to cow’s milk as a top source of calcium — but since it comes from a cow, you’ll obviously need an alternative for your child’s vegan diet. Look to other calcium-rich foods like fortified soy milk, tofu, almond butter, sesame butter, and leafy greens.
Although many Americans are deficient in dietary fiber, a vegan diet can actually provide too much fiber of your baby’s tiny GI tract.
Not only can this cause gas, diarrhea, and extra fussiness, it can have other, less obvious consequences. “Too much fiber can lead to poor absorption of important nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium,” says Chow.
So what’s a vegan parent to do when introducing fiber-rich foods like grains, soy, veggies, and beans? Try the following:
- increase fiber gradually in your baby’s diet
- offer plenty of fluids while increasing fiber
- soak and drain sprouting beans, grains, nuts, and seeds to improve digestibility and reduce nutrient binding
In an ideal world, everyone who provides care for your baby would understand what does and doesn’t belong on your child’s vegan diet — and be on board with the idea. The real world, of course, isn’t so perfect.
It’s possible you may face resistance or ignorance from caregivers about the choices you’ve made for your baby’s eating. As much as you may provide guidelines for what your child can eat, you may end up having some tough conversations with caregivers.
You also may need to be prepared for the fact that, when outside of your care, your child will eventually consume some animal products (even if accidentally).
As much as possible, do the emotional work to make peace with what you can’t control, knowing that an unwitting bite of cheese or hamburger won’t ruin your child for veganism forever.
Just like for adults, there are some circumstances where it’s not the best choice for children to eat a vegan diet.
Kids who are extremely picky eaters or have feeding difficulties may be at higher risk of nutritional inadequacy, says Chow. In fact, any health or medical condition that impedes your child’s ability to eat or digest food may be reason enough to forgo a vegan diet.
If your child has this type of health issue, talk with your pediatrician about whether it’s wise to keep animal products off the menu.
Babies who were born prematurely may also benefit from the growth-promoting proteins and fats animal products provide, so your doctor may recommend a more varied diet until your child has caught up on weight.
Chow notes, too, that a vegan diet poses a health concern for babies at high risk of food allergies. “It’s recommended to introduce priority allergens early to reduce risk of developing allergies,” she says. “On a vegan diet, the baby will not be exposed to eggs, dairy, fish, seafood — which are part of the top allergens.”
Plus, we’ll be honest: If your kiddo has multiple food allergies, such as to nuts, seeds, or soy, it can be a pretty epic challenge to make a vegan diet work.
If you have strong feelings about issues like animal cruelty or the health of the environment, it’s only natural to want to raise a child who’s conscious of these concerns.
On the other hand, since veganism may not be right for certain babies or children — at least for a while — it’s best to consult your pediatrician before making the determination to feed your itty-bitty eater a vegan diet.
If you do decide, after consultation with your doctor, that animal-free is the way to go for your whole family, you may be advised to work with a pediatric dietitian. They can help you make a plan for a healthy approach to veganism from infancy on up.
Don’t have a referral? Check the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ registry of practitioners in your area.
A vegan baby doesn’t have to be a contradiction in terms, even from your child’s first days of life. By taking the right precautions, it’s possible to bring your little one up on a diet free of animal products. Your veggie babe can grow up just as healthy and strong as any omnivore.