Vegan Infants 0-12 Months: How to Plan a Plant-Based Diet for Your Children

Is it safe to feed your baby a vegan/plant-based diet?

The aim of this post is to empower you with the knowledge to openly discuss your baby’s nutritional needs with your Paediatrician to create the best food plan possible for your own individual circumstances.

When it comes to feeding infants a vegan diet, there is quite a bit of confusion and uncertainty… and rightly so because traditionally, plant-based nutrition has not been a real topic of focus for medical professionals.  It makes sense that most paediatricians teach and advise on what they were taught, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that such advice provides the only or best way to feed your baby (much of the curriculum at Medical school has been influenced by industries with agendas and quite frankly, even if this was not the case, they just don’t teach enough hours).  As a result, many doctors stick to what they know… medicine. Unfortunately, such doctors cannot see the real medicine staring them in the face… proper nutrition. Fortunately, times are changing.

Historically it was thought that a vegan diet was not a sufficient source of nutrition for adequate development and growth during the infant period (0-2 years) where there is a lot of cell proliferation and maturation of vital organs and systems, however we now know a well balanced vegan diet is perfectly fine for an infant from birth. In an article published in the Journal of American Dietetic Association Messina et al concluded:

Diets of vegan children meet or exceed recommendations for most nutrients, and vegan children have higher intakes of fiber and lower intakes of total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol than omnivore children (1)

As Veganism is considered a little ‘different’ (although it is fast becoming mainstream) because it goes against many of our traditional beliefs, you often hear of the “vegan baby who died” or the “vegan baby that was malnourished”.  What we don’t hear is “That baby who ate meat and dairy ended up getting diabetes” or “That baby who ate meats and dairy ended up getting cardiovascular disease”… simply because the onset of these conditions happens later in life and companies with lots of money do not want you to know their products are harmful in the long term.

Regardless of the diet, animal-based or not, an infants diet needs to be carefully planned to ensure adequate nutrition.  This is the most important message in this blog, which I cannot stress enough. 

A baby can get the nutrients it requires from an animal based diet, however they can also get the required nutrients from a plant-based diet without exposure to excessive saturated animal fats, cholesterol and other compounds associated with disease such as heme-iron that are in most animal-based foods, ‘organic’ or not. In addition a well balanced plant-based diet offers many more protective antioxidants and phytonutrients than a typical infant animal-based diet.

A well thought out plant-based diet is a really incredible way to bring your baby into this world… giving it’s body the best chance to thrive without disease in the years to come.  The American Academy of Paediatrics has stated this too, confirming a balanced vegan diet can be a perfectly healthy form of nutrition you choose for your baby.

Part of establishing a plant-based diet from day 1 is a proactive approach to health – a measure taken to reduce that child’s chance of developing chronic disease later in life (2)…this proactive approach to health must be led by us (the people) because unfortunately, it will not be led by the big corporations as the money is not in disease prevention, rather in disease treatment.  If there are less humans eating animal products, it means loss of money for the animal farming industry, loss of money for Big Pharma supplying antibiotics to the cattle, loss of money for Big Pharma supplying medications to sick humans, loss of money for the hospitals and medical staff that treat sickness, etc., etc.  Can you see why they would all be against promoting a healthy, whole food plant-based diet that reduces sickness and your chance of developing disease?

 

The Maternal Diet and It’s Role in Infant Nutrition:

Firstly, when considering infant nutrition we need to look at the maternal diet.  If your baby is breastfeeding, the mothers diet is extremely important.  A well balanced, whole food plant-based maternal diet that includes adequate sources of vitamins and minerals is crucial.  In addition, per my blog on B12, if the mother is living a 100% vegan lifestyle they should be supplementing with a daily B12 – in my view this is non negotiable because low B12 can really affect the baby’s brain, nervous system and blood cell development, and supplementation is the only way to ensure a reliable dosage is delivered (as compared to B12 fortified foods like Nutritional Yeast). I would also recommend vegan breastfeeding mothers to supplement with a DHA/EPA Omega 3 Algae oil to ensure they have good levels of these long chain essential fatty acids.  These essential fatty acids have been shown to play an important role in nervous system development and motor response at 4 months (3) and better mental development at 18 months (4).

Within the maternal diet, Vitamin D, Iron, Calcium and Zinc should also be strongly focused on. The Australian Recommended Daily Intake of these important nutrients for mothers while breastfeeding is (5):

Iron: 9-10mg/Day

Vitamin D: 5.0 µg/Day or up to 10.0 µg/Day for mothers/infants that get minimal sun exposure

Zinc: 12mg/Day

B12: 2.8µg/Day

Calcium: 1,000mg/Day

DHA/EPA Algae Oil (Long chain Omega 3 Fatty Acids): There is no RDI for DHA/EPA, however I suggest a Vegan Algae Oil DHA/EPA supplement (approx 300mg/day) to be taken by the mother during pregnancy and lactation.  Read this blog for more information. Omega Plant Based Omega 3 offer a fantastic one on Amazon.

The better the maternal diet, the better the quality of composition of the breast milk and the less likely the infant will need direct supplementation.

All of the above is measured with blood tests by Obstetricians over the pregnancy period, so they will recommend if the mother requires any supplementation during and after the birth. They are the best person to discuss this with.  It is also advisable to increase your calorie intake approx. 500 good, whole food derived calories/day initially when breastfeeding (first 6 months) to increase the milk supply.

Given studies have shown the pesticide levels are far lower in the breast milk of vegetarians compared to non vegetarians I would recommend a well balanced plant based ORGANIC diet for any mother breastfeeding her baby to reduce their exposure to unnecessary toxins.  To my knowledge there are no studies suggesting harm from these pesticides, however until we have robust data (many are new to our food system in the past 100 years) I think it’s safe to err on the side of caution where possible.

What nutrients does my infant need and what is the recommended dietary intake for each during infancy?

 

0-6 month olds:

It’s important to note the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends EXCLUSIVE breastfeeding, the biological norm for infant nutrition, during the first 4-6 months where possible because it helps boost their immunity, provides well rounded nutrition during a rapid growth period and reduces their chances of developing colds, ear infections, asthma, type 2 diabetes, obesity, allergies, infectious diseases, stomach upsets and chronic diseases later in life (6, 7).  Breast milk provides the perfect balance of fat, carbohydrates and protein along with lots of antibodies, prebiotics, vitamins, minerals and Omega 3’s.

In addition to the benefits that breast milk offers a baby, there are some key benefits for the mother too.  The increased caloric intake required for the mother to create adequate breast milk is more economical than the cost of infant formula.  A breastfeeding mother typically has faster postpartum weight loss and has a reduced chance of developing diseases later in life, like diabetes and breast cancer.

For vegan mothers who cannot breastfeed or are short of supply and need to ‘top up’ a commercial baby, formula is recommended during this period to ensure the baby receives adequate nutrition.  As standard formulas contain dairy, the recommended formula for a vegan infant is Soy Formula. It is important to note that some Soy Formula brands use Vitamin D and Fats from animal sources, however Soy Formula is the only alternative to Dairy Formula for infants that can not receive all their nutrition from breast milk.  Unfortunately, if the infant does not tolerate Soy (soy allergy) there are no other recommended formula alternatives that do not contain animal products.  There is, of course, the option to use donor breast milk, however this is typically reserved for the most fragile of babies and usually there is extremely limited supply.  If you are interested in donor milk, it is best to look for local companies that supply it and/or discuss with your hospital and paedatrician. Putting donor milk aside, in the circumstance where Soy Formula is not tolerated, it is, of course, imperative that the infant is fed a dairy formula until after 12 months where they are able to get all the nutrients they require from solid foods.  Parents should never try and make their own formula – it’s quite difficult to replicate breast milk and it’s therefore not worth the risk of providing inadequate nutrition and affecting the baby’s ability to thrive.

Yes, the dairy formula may not be the mothers first choice, but I am sure everyone would agree that, when Soy Formula cannot be used, making sure the baby has the essential nutrients it needs is absolutely paramount.

*Please note regular plant milks (coconut, soy, hemp, almond, hazelnut, etc.) do not provide a sufficient amount of nutrition to replace breast or formula milk within the first 12 months of a babies life.

If the infant has no allergy to Soy, then a Soy Formula (Iron, B12 and Vitamin D fortified) can be used with or without breast milk until he/she is 6 months old (as much breast milk as possible as for any infant (vegan or not) this is the gold standard of nutrition).  It’s strongly advisable that any infant being raised on a vegan diet with a vegan mother is given a B12 supplement from birth (just the same as B12 being recommended for vegan adults), however this should be added to the nutrition plan in consultation with a Paediatrician.  The recommended amount amount of B12 per day for infants 0-6 months is 0.4 µg/day and then from 6-12 months 0.5 µg/day. At the same time, the mother should be having her recommended daily B12 intake which is 2.6 µg/day, especially if breastfeeding during this stage.  Most Soy Formula contains fortified B12.

There is very little Vitamin D in breast milk, so from 3 months on it is advisable that all infants receiving breast milk nutrition get 30 minutes of sun exposure (in a nappy only) at least 1 x per week or 2 hours per week fully clothed without a hat on.  For dark skinned babies or babies living in countries with minimal sunlight/not getting enough sun exposure, it is advisable to consider a Vitamin D supplement which offers 5.0 µg/day. If you are feeding your child a formula, it often contains Vitamin D so please check the label and discuss with your Paediatrician if you feel further Vitamin D is required to meet the 5.0 µg/day recommendation.  This is the RDI for Vitamin D from birth until 50 years of age.

Iron drops can be given after 4 months until they are ready to consume iron rich foods (4 months correlates with when Iron concentration in breast milk begins to decline).  Usually this is guided by blood tests on the mother and baby. Once the baby is over 12 months old, a full fat soy milk is a completely fine alternative to breast milk – again, one enriched with Vitamin D, Calcium and Iron is preferable.

6-12 month olds:

For all babies, it is still recommended to breastfeed where possible beyond 6 months until at least 12 months along with supplementary foods.  The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding up to 2.5 years of age, however this is often not possible.  If the infant has been fed a soy formula (or part breast milk part formula diet) this is to be continued until 12 months – standard Soy Milk (or Dairy Milk for that matter) is never recommended for a baby under 12 months because of the low iron bioavailability.  If possible, it is good to start introducing solid foods at 6 months when breast milk begins to become less concentrated with Zinc and Iron.

Plant Proof: Raising a Vegan Baby/Infant

Below is a suggested feeding schedule for infants from 4-6 months to 12 months showing how you can introduce solid foods to ensure the baby is receiving adequate nutrition.

4-6 months: Human breast milk or soy formula with the addition of Iron Fortified Infant Cereal. Ideally you wait until 6 months if possible. Bubs Organic have a fantastic Iron Fortified Infant Cereal which is oats based.

6-8 months: Continue with human breast milk/soy formula and the Iron Fortified Infant Cereal (oats/porridge are great) and add in crackers, toast, unsweetened dry cereal, soft bread, strained fruit/vegetables and strained vegetables/vegetable juice. At 7-8 months, you can add in mashed/scrambled tofu, pureed legumes, soft finger foods and soy/coconut yogurt.  This is the period where ‘family food’ can start to be introduced (less rigid than the first 6 months where the infant is to have only breast milk/soy formula).

9-10 months: Continue with the above, but move from strained fruit/veg to soft/cooked fruit and mashed vegetables. At this time, you can add in Soy or other plant-based cheeses.  Superfoods like Hemp Seeds (rich in Omega 3’s, Zinc and Iron) and Chia Seeds (rich in Iron, Calcium and Omega 3’s) are also perfectly fine to introduce at this stage (they can be easily mixed into the pureed legumes or yogurt).

10-12 months: Continue with above and can add in rice, tempeh, small pieces of tofu burger. You can progress to soft/canned small pieces of peeled fruit and vegetables as tolerated (rather than just mashed).

Tips for preparing baby foods:

  • Fruits and vegetables should be well washed and cooked thoroughly with skin, strings and seeds removed.
  • No added salt, sugar or spices.
  • Prepared foods should be refrigerated for no more than 2 days before being consumed.
  • Avoid honey and corn syrup in the first 12 months.
  • Nut and Seed spreads should be avoided on crackers for the first year due to risk of choking, and in families with nut allergies, any nut products should be avoided for first 3 years.
  • Cooked legumes should be pressed through a sieve to remove skins.
  • Legumes, quinoa, brown rice, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds are loaded with Protein, Iron, Zinc, Choline & Folate and thus should be a key component of a mothers and babies diet as they cover many of the key nutrients discussed above (once the baby is over 4-6 months and begins having supplementary foods).

Is soy formula safe for my baby?

Soy formula has been shown to be a perfectly safe alternative to dairy formula for infant nutrition (8).  In saying that a small percentage of babies can be intolerant to soy and in this case, if the baby cannot be fully fed on breast milk, a dairy formula is the safest option to ensure the vital nutrient requirements are met.

What type of soy formula do you recommend?

I, personally, recommend a soy formula which ticks all of these boxes (note: they will contain nutrition beyond this list but this is the list of MUST HAVES where possible):

  • Organic (Non-GMO)
  • 100% natural (no artificial flavours, preservatives or pesticides/herbicides)
  • Contains DHA and/or EPA (Healthy Omega 3’s as discussed above)
  • Contains B12 (Cyanocobalamin or methylcobalamin)
  • Contains Vitamin D
  • Contains Iron
  • Contains Zinc
  • Contains Choline
  • Contains Calcium

What are some examples of soy formulas that meet the above nutritional requirements? By no means are these the only 3 recommended soy formulas, but they can be used as a benchmark/guide to help you identify the best formula that is accessible in your supermarkets.

For shipping within USA:

Earth’s Best Organic Soy Formula – Available on AmazonPlant Proof: USA Vegan Soy Baby Infant Formula

For shipping within Australia:

Gerber Good Start Soy FormulaSoy Baby formula Plant Proof

 For shipping within UK/Europe:

Enfamil Infant Soy Formula Plant Proof

Can’t find the above in your area?  Use the checklist and speak with your Paediatrician to help locate the best option.

Feeding your baby is an incredibly personal choice.  Whilst the above is a combination of my recommendations, clinical study findings and general nutritional science I completely respect that every mother (and father) has the right to choose what their newborn is fed (as long as it’s one of, or a combination of, breast milk or formula as that is what the WHO guidelines put forward and what any baby needs to thrive).  Personally, I do not have children, but when I do, I will raise them on a very healthy and well balanced, and nutritionally adequate, plant-based diet and as they grow up, educate them as to why we eat certain foods and why it’s best to avoid others. When they are grown up, although I would hope they choose a plant-based lifestyle, I will ultimately respect any decision they make about their nutritional habits and continue to love them unconditionally.  I think that’s a really important message – unconditional love even when our belief systems are challenged or opposed, particularly when it involves family.

For more information on this topic I recommend listening to my Glad you’re loving the podcast with registered Dietician Whitney English.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11424545
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528709/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7478826
  4. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-8749.2000.tb00066.x/full
  5. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3929058/
  7. https://www.who.int/elena/titles/bbc/breastfeeding_childhood_obesity/en/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11497534
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