One of the more common questions that I get asked as a vegan mother is if vegans can breastfeed. People often assume that vegans wouldn’t have an adequate diet to produce enough milk or that their milk would be lacking in nutrients. Other times people might wonder if breastfeeding is in line with veganism since it’s an animal product.
Firstly I would like to address whether breastfeeding is in fact vegan. Human breast milk comes from an animal, but breastfeeding parents generally consent to their baby having their milk and it (usually) doesn’t cause suffering. So that sounds suitable for vegans to me.
I also want to add that of course some people aren’t able to breastfeed. As far as I know, there is currently no vegan infant formula available. The Vegan Society say, “If you cannot breastfeed your baby, use properly formulated commercial soya infant formula (by law, infant formula is fortified with vitamin D3. Formula is the only safe alternative to breast milk, even though the vitamin D3 is from lanolin, a derivative from sheep).”
Personally I think of infant formula as being like medicine. Sometimes it is necessary, and if breastfeeding isn’t a possibility, and donor breast milk isn’t available, then the next recommended food for babies is formula. Some people aren’t able to breastfeed, or may not receive the right information or support to be able to succeed at it, and some people choose not to breastfeed, which could be for many reasons. If a baby needs formula then I see it as necessary and acceptable for vegans to use formula.
Breastfeeding has many benefits and is great for children whether vegan or not. As an added benefit for vegans, it can stop people saying that your child needs cows’ milk or wondering where they get their calcium. Though some people will still argue that children need cows’ milk. Of course it doesn’t make any sense that a child would need the milk of another species when they get human milk.
You may have seen stories about a vegan breastfeeding mother whose baby became sick or died. While this is very sad, it could happen to anyone who doesn’t have an adequate diet or provide their child with an adequate diet. If a breastfeeding parent eats a fairly good diet and takes a multivitamin (in particular vitamin B12) then this is very unlikely to happen.
People may also say that someone needs to drink cows’ milk in order to make milk. This obviously doesn’t make sense, since adults are not naturally meant to drink breast milk, especially not from another species. And cows and other mammals don’t drink milk to make milk. Cows eat plants and get their calcium from plants. So humans can do that too.
The World Health Organisation say, “exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”
I’m happy that I was able to breastfeed both of my children. I had some difficulties with breastfeeding Rian at the start (not vegan related), and had to supplement with formula for a while for medical reasons, but was able to overcome the problems and breastfeed for over two years. I breastfed Oran exclusively for six months, and am still going now at ten months, along with solids, and plan to breastfeed him for at least two years.
I didn’t have any issues with breastfeeding due to being vegan, and my children thrived. I had loads of milk. They grew and gained weight well, and reached all of their developmental milestones. I take a multivitamin for pregnancy and lactation, as is often recommended, whether vegan or not. Other than that, I eat a fairly healthy diet, but am not too strict about it. Usually a breastfeeding parent’s diet doesn’t make a different to the quality of their milk, unless they are severely malnourished.
We vegans know a vegan diet can be very healthy, but since it’s not the norm in our society, many people will doubt it. Here are some expert opinions to back it up.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association) is the United States’ largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals. Here’s what they say about vegan diets, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”
Many other reputable health groups and breastfeeding groups have similar opinions.
The British NHS says, “If you’re breastfeeding and following a vegan diet, it’s especially important to take a vitamin D supplement, as recommended for all breastfeeding women. If you have been taking a vitamin B12 supplement, you should also continue taking it while you are breastfeeding. You should be able to get all the other vitamins and minerals you need by eating a varied and balanced diet.”
Kellymom.com says, “A vegetarian or vegan mother does not need to take any special dietary precautions as long as she is maintaining a diet with adequate amounts of vitamin B12, calcium and zinc. This is something that mom needs to do for herself, even if she is not breastfeeding.”
La Leche League state that, “Leaders can assure vegetarian mothers that their diet should not present a problem when breastfeeding their babies.” This statement seems to include vegans as they are a type of vegetarians. They also add that vegan parents may need to take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Remember that there are people all over the world following vegan diets who breastfeed their children. As long as you make sure to get enough vitamin B12 and other nutrients, as any breastfeeding parent should, then it shouldn’t be a problem.