You don’t have to look hard on social media or other outlets to find lively discussion about the benefits of a vegan lifestyle. With influences such as health, the environment, and animal welfare at the forefront, many families are re-examining their practices and adopting a vegan diet to reflect their values and personal health beliefs.
Making this transition as an adult has its challenges. Embarking on this journey with a baby or toddler adds a whole other dimension!
Whether you are a long-term vegan or new on the path to becoming one, you likely have a lot of questions about feeding your vegan baby or toddler. At some point, you may ask: “I believe this diet is right for my family but how can I be sure my child is getting everything they need? Please tell me we are not foolish for thinking we can do this?!”
The short answer: You are not foolish, and this is possible. With access to quality information to build on your knowledge and skills, your child can grow and develop normally when following a well-balanced vegan diet.
Taking steps to include more plant-based foods is great for the health of your family.
Healthy vegan diets may contribute to lower rates of high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity, type two diabetes and certain types of cancer. A move to a vegan diet doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can always start with a plant-based diet and then add steps towards your ultimate goal of vegan, if that feels good to you.
Making sure children get enough energy (or calories) is key to meeting needs for growth. Regularly monitor your child’s growth. When feeding your vegan baby and toddler, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Before 6 months, your baby only needs breastmilk and a 400 IU vitamin D supplement every day. If you cannot give breastmilk to your baby, feed your baby store-bought soy-based infant formula. Continue this until your baby is at least 2 years of age.
- By about 6 months of age, your baby needs more nutrients, especially iron, and is ready to start solid foods. Make sure your baby’s first foods are iron rich. Breastfeed on demand and include foods like ground nuts/seeds or nut/seed butters, avocado, whole grains, beans, peas, legumes, tofu, sweet potatoes, and healthy fats and oils with meals and snacks.
- By 1 year of age, work towards feeding your child 3 meals and 2 to 3 snacks each day. Babies and toddlers have small tummies and high needs for energy.
- Before 2 years of age, plant-based, milk-type beverages such as soy beverage are not recommended. They do not have enough nutrition to meet the needs of your growing baby. Note, soy beverage is different from soy-based infant formula.
- For toddlers, include at least 3 to 4 foods out of the 4 food groups at a meal and 2 to 3 out of the 4 food groups at a snack.
Nutrients for Vegan Babies and Toddlers
Most foods contain some protein. Vegan protein-rich foods include: beans, peas, lentils, ground nuts/seeds or thinly spread or well blended nut/seed butters, tofu and other soy products. Children have slightly higher protein needs (per kilogram of their body weight) than adults. Vegans may also have slightly higher requirements than non-vegans. Complete protein needs can be met entirely through plant-based foods. There is no need to combine foods at meals to create complete proteins. Aim to include a variety of protein-rich foods daily.
Vitamin B12 deficiency can have serious effects. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal foods. Vegans need a vitamin B12 supplement or a consistent intake of foods fortified with vitamin B12 to meet their needs. Regularly including enough fortified foods in the diet of a baby or toddler would be a challenge. Aim to give your toddler 0.9 mcg of vitamin B12 daily. Vegan breastfeeding mothers should make sure they are getting at least 2.8 mcg of vitamin B12 daily. Talk to your health care provider for guidance on vitamin B12 supplementation, breastfeeding and vegan diets.
An important role for calcium is to build strong, healthy bones and teeth. Calcium is found in: breastmilk and store-bought infant formula, calcium fortified tofu, almond and sesame (tahini) butter, beans, peas, lentils, leafy greens, and black strap molasses. Aim to give your toddler 700 mg of calcium daily.
Vitamin D can be made in our bodies and we can also get it from some foods. Giving vitamin D supplements and fortified foods such as store-bought infant formula and fortified beverages to your baby or toddler can help to meet their vitamin D needs. To prevent deficiency, babies less than 1 year of age need 400 IU per day and 600 IU is recommended for toddlers 1 to 3 years of age.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in babies and young children. Iron is essential for growth and brain development. A 7 to 12 month old baby needs 11 mg and a 1 to 3 year old toddler needs 7mg of iron daily. Vegetarians may require an intake of 1.8 times more iron than non-vegetarians. Offer iron rich foods at least 2 to 3 times each day to help your baby meet their needs. Vegan food sources of iron include: fortified cereals, beans, peas, lentils, tofu, broccoli, kale, and green beans. As vitamin C helps to increase absorption of iron, pair your iron-containing foods with tomatoes, citrus, melon, strawberries, broccoli, papaya, or bell peppers for an added boost!
Zinc is a mineral that helps the body use energy from foods, is needed for a healthy immune system, and supports growth and repair of body tissues. Food sources include: nuts and seeds, beans, peas, lentils, tofu, and wheat germ. Eating a variety of these foods daily will help ensure your child gets enough.
Omega-3 fats are important for brain development and eye health. Because vegan children only get their omega-3 fats from plant-based foods, they may have a higher requirement than non-vegan children. Food sources of omega-3 include: ground walnuts, flaxseed oil, ground flaxseeds or chia seeds, hempseeds, and canola oil. Aim to give your 1 to 3 year old toddler 1.4 grams of a specific omega-3 fat called ALA daily – this would be like eating half a teaspoon of flaxseed oil.
Iodine is an essential part of thyroid hormones, which helps the body to use energy. Smaller amounts of iodine may be present in a number of foods, including some grains and legumes. Iodized table salt is also a good source of iodine, yet added salt is not recommended for babies and young children. Seaweed and kelp are not considered reliable sources of iodine. Talk to a registered dietitian or your healthcare provider about how to ensure you child gets enough iodine.
As many factors affect how well a baby or toddler might eat on a given day (hello rapid growth and 18+ months of teething), vegan children may benefit by taking a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if this (or any other) supplement is right for your child.
Call HealthLink BC at 8-1-1 for more help understanding which kinds of foods, and how much, your baby or toddler needs in order to get enough of the nutrients above. Ask to be transferred to a pediatric dietitian to start a conversation about how to feed your vegan baby. You can also send an email.
Author's bio: Today's blog was written by Genevieve Larrivée. Genevieve is a Pediatric Dietitian with the Pediatric Nutrition Service with Dietitian & Physical Activity Services at HealthLink BC. She has 9 years of experience helping families manage their children’s nutrition care.
Healthy Vegetarian and Vegan Eating for Toddlers