Congratulations! You’re having a baby, and what a wonderful adventure you are about to embark on! Now begins some tough decision making, as those around you turn their attention to their future family members, hard questions will start cropping up; what will you name them? Will you bottle or breastfeed? And, most importantly, will it be safe to raise your child as the compassionate vegan you imagined them to be? We all want the best start for our children, and choosing to raise them vegan can still be harshly criticized. Not only will you have to defend yourselves against a, thankfully shrinking, the wave of judgment, unresearched accusations of child abuse are unfortunately not rare, but you will also have to fill your brain with your own reassurances that you are, in fact, doing the right thing. In this article, we hope to ease some of your concerns and answer some frequently aired questions, shedding light on the truth of whether or not it is safe to raise your child vegan.
Is it safe to raise your child vegan?
Let’s start by saying that a number of health organizations have come out in recent years and confirmed that yes, raising your child vegan is safe and a quick google search brings up multiple examples of this. For instance, in 2017 the British Dietetic Association continued its work with the Vegan Society, stating; ‘it is possible to follow a well-planned, plant-based, vegan-friendly diet that supports healthy living in people of all ages. (1)
They’re not the only official body to agree on this; in 2016 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated in their position paper that ‘appropriately planned […] vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and […] are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood…etc (2)
These are just a couple of examples of the now numerous pro-vegan official statements. So, no matter how hard your neighbor Gary tries to convince you of the opposite, research confirms that no, raising a child vegan is not bad, unhealthy, or child abuse. Now we have the very basics cleared up, let’s try and wipe away the mystique surrounding questions all-vegan parents will have at some point.
When can a child go vegan?
If you’re a vegan mother, you may be concerned that you will have to switch up your diet in order to accommodate the little life now growing inside of you and that, when your new person has arrived, you’ll have to forgo your ethics to ensure your baby gets everything they need to grow and thrive the best they can. This, however, is not the case. Research suggests that a vegan diet is appropriate, and potentially better, during pregnancy and beyond, with risks of things like preeclampsia, gestational weight gain, and certain diseases in infants, amongst other common issues, being lowered. (3) As long as you are aware of the nutrients that you may not be getting enough of, which will be covered later, you and your baby will thrive, allowing for a child to become vegan right from conception.
Can a baby survive on a vegan diet? What do vegan babies drink instead of milk?
Great! Now we know you don’t have to forgo veganism during pregnancy! So then, what about when you have your little one with you? How do you continue creating a nutritionally beneficial and safe vegan diet for them, and is that even possible?
Up until the age of 6 months, a baby should only be consuming formula or breast milk. The good news is that breast milk is totally vegan and often recommended as the best choice for babies; it is specifically produced for them and helps them get a full meals worth of the nutrients they need to be a healthy, happy bundle of joy. The only thing you have to be wary of is how the mother is taking care of herself. However, as a vegan, she is probably well versed in the potential deficiencies she is at risk from, and so will be supplementing her diet where she needs and, hopefully, not going on weekend-long benders.
It is also recommended for all breastfed babies, the diet of the mother irrelevant, that vitamin D drops are given, as a large portion of our vitamin D comes from the sun, and, even in carnivorous diets, only comes in a handful of foods. Unless you’re using a vitamin D fortified formula, get D drops! (4)
The sort of bad news for vegans is that if breastfeeding is not an option, the vegan-friendly formula is still relatively hard to come by and a lot of dairy-free options, specifically soy-based formulas, aren’t recommended for those under 6 months due to a lack of research. But all is not lost! Speak to your medical practitioner and they will be able to advise, and sometimes prescribe, a suitable formula.
What about weaning? I hear you cry. Surely a plant-based diet can’t provide all the essential nutrients needed to raise a chunky baby? Ah, but it can! All it takes is a little more planning. For a start, you can consider breastfeeding for longer, all the way up to two years old. This helps provide a full meal of vitamins to help your baby grow. Moving onto solid foods just takes getting a little familiar with macro and micronutrients (don’t let the big words scare you, it is simple when broken down). Even if your baby wasn’t vegan, you’d still have to ensure they are getting enough of everything as some things simply aren’t as easy to provide enough of, regardless of diet.
The key areas of macronutrients are simply fat, carbohydrates, and proteins and here we need variety, variety, variety! Don’t just shovel in protein-rich tofu and say job done, introduce your child to lots of different sources of protein, utilize fortified food and milk and avoid low nutrient milk, like almond, coconut, and rice, as these will only fill them up and not give them what they need! Fat doesn’t mean fattening them up with coconut oil either. There are plenty of healthy sources of fat that can help your little one develop full taste buds and cultivate a variety of different foods they like, such as nuts, avocado, chia seeds, and olive oil.
There is a fantastic article written by vegan nutritionists that delves a little deeper into this, linked at the bottom.
What are the health risks of being vegan?
There is no 100% confirmed health risks with being a vegan, other than vitamin deficiencies which can occur in anyone of any diet. However, it is important to highlight the key vegan-centric ones at risk of being low, particularly for children as they rely on these to grow up healthy. Like any parent, you’ll want to ensure your child is getting enough, varied nutrients in their diet, but the following are the ones that you must actively include in a vegan diet.
B12 – This is a big one amongst vegans and most know that it is one that should be monitored. The vegan society recommends that before the age of five you should utilize fortified food and drink, of which there is a growing selection due to an increase in demand, or supplements to ensure enough B12 is being consumed. Having said that, a recent study comparing the blood of carnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan children suggested that ‘The vitamin B12 levels were particularly good in the vegan children and adolescents [indicating] that people raising their children on a vegan diet are aware of the importance of supplementing B12. (5)
Iron – There are plenty of iron-rich foods available to vegans, such as leafy greens, lentils, nuts, and whole grains. However, plant-based sources combined with a higher level of fiber intake in a vegan diet mean the iron has less of an active effect on the body, particularly in children. This is easy to remedy, as providing a source of vitamin C alongside meals, such as orange juice, helps the body absorb more iron. Amy Chow, RD suggests ‘[Combining iron sources]…with a source of vitamin C, use a cast iron pan for cooking, and offer iron-fortified baby cereal. (6)
Iodine – Key for brain development, iodine is largely found in dairy and fish, therefore it is recommended that vegans opt for an iodine supplement.
Calcium – This gets questioned frequently as, ‘If you don’t drink cow’s milk, where are you getting your calcium from?’ There are a lot of myths surrounding veganism and calcium, but there are plenty of vegan-friendly options readily available for parents to ensure good bone growth. Tofu, pulses, leafy greens, and fortified plant milk are just a handful of examples.
DHA Omega 3 – Important for heart health and brain development, there are various options found in plants. However, the body converts these much slower than other non-vegan sources so some people opt for a micro-algae supplement. Examples of plant sources of omega 3 are rapeseed oil, hemp, flax, chia, and walnuts.
Vitamin D – As stated before, it is recommended that all babies take vitamin D drops. There is a D3 supplement made from lichen but they’re more often made from sheep’s wool. If you’re unsure, you can choose vitamin D2. (7) (8)
This may seem like a lot to remember, but don’t panic! If you are struggling you can talk to vegan nutritionists and follow advice from other vegan parents. There are plenty of qualified vegan consultants who would be more than happy to advise on how to get everything a growing child needs! Always consult your doctor if your child is showing signs of any vitamin deficiency. Once you get into the flow of recognizing what vitamins are needed and how to get them, you’ll see it isn’t such a mammoth task, and you’ll begin to wonder what the big deal was all along.
Conclusion: Is it healthy for a kid to be vegan?
‘Overall, the vegan children had the best food pattern on average, mostly eating whole, plant-based foods” […] According to the German Federal Institute for Risk Research (BfR), vegans, in general, are more conscious about their diet and more likely to actively seek out information about necessary nutrients than non-vegans. (9)
Being a vegan parent comes with many different challenges, but raising a healthy child shouldn’t be considered one of them. It simply comes down to knowing the basics of nutrition and what vitamins should be ever-present on a vegan’s plate. Studies have also begun to emerge suggesting that ‘…there is overall robust support for beneficial effects of a plant-based diet on metabolic measures in health and disease. (10) Meaning, by and large, a vegan diet is the best choice health-wise for your child. Not only that, but it promotes compassion and it’s becoming fairly common knowledge that it is better for the environment. As any parent with any diet, be aware of what your child is consuming, get them checked if you have any concerns, and ask for help if you need it. It is a huge thing to become a parent and lots of tough choices have to be made, but you can rest assured that choosing to raise your child vegan is one of the best ones you can make, not just for them, but for the future.
References & Footnotes