People often assume that a vegan diet would not be appropriate for very young children, especially babies and toddlers. But in fact many dieticians and health groups say that babies and toddlers can safely be raised on a vegan diet. Many of us vegan parents around the world are raising vegan babies and toddlers. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and American Academy of Pediatrics say, “Well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are healthy for infants and toddlers.”
I am not an expert but have raised a vegan child through the baby and toddler years (he’s now 3), and am doing it again with my 11 month old. Like many vegan parents, I’ve done a lot of research into raising a vegan child, and have learned that it’s not only possible, but it doesn’t take that much extra effort.
The First Year
Breast milk and/or formula usually provides most of what a baby needs for the first 12 months. And yes, breast milk is vegan, and vegans’ breast milk is just as good as non vegans’. Of course not everyone can breast feed and some people may choose not to. The next recommended choice would be donor breast milk but if that is not available then infant formula would be necessary. As far as I know there is currently no 100% vegan infant formula available. There are soy formulas that are properly formulated for infants, although they generally contain either fish oil and/or vitamin D from sheep’s wool. Many vegans believe that if formula is needed then it is morally acceptable for vegans to use it. I think of it as the same as necessary medications and sometimes it is necessary to use it. Homemade formulas are not medically recommended.
The World Health Organization recommend exclusive breast feeding for the first 6 months, and to continue breastfeeding, along with solid food, for two years or as long as the parent and child want. The main milk source for the first 12 months should be breast milk and/or formula. Plants milks designed for adults like soy milk, almond milk, etc. can be introduced in food at about 6 months but should not be given as a drink to replace breast milk or formula.
There is some concern about soy for babies but it seems to be unproven. This is a good link about soy myths and misinformation.
It’s recommended to introduce solid food to babies at about 6 months. This can be in the form of purées, finger foods or a combination. For vegans, this could include fruit, vegetables, grains like porridge or rice, beans, and other family foods as long as they are fairly healthy and not a choking hazard (and if there’s no reason to worry about allergies). A lot of people worry about breastfed babies not getting enough iron. However anaemia in uncommon in breastfed babies. Breast milk does contain iron, which is in lower amounts than in formula, but it is more easily absorbable. People may worry that vegan babies in particular won’t get enough iron but there are many plant based sources of iron, such as dark green vegetables, nut butter, beans and grains. This is a great link about iron in breast milk and whether iron supplementation is needed.
The Second Year and Beyond
If people choose to, they can continue to breastfeed throughout the second year and for as long as they want. Breastfeeding continues to be beneficial for as long as it continues. In the second year and beyond, breastfeeding provides calories, protein, healthy fat, calcium, iron, vitamin A, folate, vitamin C and can provide most of the vitamin B12 requirement, so is very beneficial for vegan children and non-vegan children alike.
After 12 months, other drinks, such as water and plant milks, can be introduced, while continuing to breast feed if desired. Some plant milks may not be suitable as a main milk source before two years of age as they might not contain the right amount of calories and nutrients. Alpro have a toddler soya milk that is suitable as a main milk from 12 months onwards. Other plant milks like soya, almond, coconut, oat or hemp milk, can be given as a supplementary drink from 12 months. Rice milk is not recommended for children under 5 years of age. Plant milks are not a necessity, if you choose not to give them, especially if breast feeding, as a child can get what they need from food and water, but they can help provide extra nutrients and are often fortified with vitamins and calcium.
After 12 months a vegan toddler will probably be eating much the same meals as the rest of the family, including fruit, vegetables, grains, beans, seeds and nut butters. Most vegan foods should be suitable except for choking hazards, such as whole nuts, whole grapes and popcorn. A balanced varied vegan diet (with breast milk or fortified plant milk if you want) can provide all of the necessary nutrients, including protein, fat, iron, calcium and vitamins.
In some countries, like Ireland, it is recommended to supplement all babies with vitamin D, whether vegan or not. This is often from sheep’s wool so is not vegan, but there are vegan vitamin D supplements for infants available too like this one.
Other than this, breast fed or formula fed babies do not generally need supplementation during the first year as they’ll get everything they need from breast milk and/or formula and food.
Breastfeeding parents are often advised to take a supplement for breastfeeding or to continue taking their prenatal vitamins throughout breastfeeding. Vegan breastfeeding parents in particular are recommended to take vitamin B12 supplements. There are vegan supplements available for pregnancy and breastfeeding, like this one.
If breastfeeding then breast milk and other foods will provide many of the necessary nutrients throughout the second year and beyond, including some B12.
The Vegan Society recommends that all vegans, get a good source of vitamin B12, from supplements or fortified food.
I go into more details about supplementing vegan kids in this post and talk about the supplements we use.
Raising my Vegan Kids
I was able to breastfeed both of my kids so knew they were getting everything they needed. I think infancy and toddlerhood will be the time that I worried least about their diets as they were breastfed. And nobody could say they needed cows’ milk when they were getting human milk or that there was something they were lacking that was only in animal products.
I introduced solid foods at about 6 months for both of my kids. I gave them healthy family meals and they ate very well from the start. I didn’t worry too much about them getting enough nutrients as they were still breastfeeding but they did eat very healthily as well.
I supplemented my babies with vitamin D drops from birth onwards. Rian ate some fortified foods and was breastfed so I didn’t worry about B12 until he was about two years old. I then chose to start giving Rian a vegan multivitamin supplement as it’s recommended that vegans supplement vitamin B12, and for my own peace of mind, although I am sure that he gets many of the vitamins and minerals from his diet anyway. My kids both eat a wide variety of plant foods and have a balanced diet.
Rian is thriving on a vegan diet, even when he got a bit fussier as a toddler, he reached all his milestones for growth, weight and development. Oran is thriving too and I’m confident that a vegan diet will fulfill his needs throughout toddlerhood and beyond.
I don’t find it difficult to raise babies and toddlers on a vegan diet. It doesn’t require hours of planning to make sure meals are balanced. It just requires a little bit of research, and eating a fairly healthy and balanced diet, and supplementing certain nutrients if necessary.