The controversy concerning feeding a new born baby a vegan diet is a tragic one. There have been several alarming cases of vegan parents charged with child cruelty or neglect when their infants die or fall dangerously ill due to malnutrition. However, this is far from a common occurrence, and most vegan families are extremely vigilant about ensuring that their infants nutritional needs are being met. Unfortunately, misinformed and negligent parents exist all over the world (whether vegan or not) and it’s easy to blame a diet or lifestyle, when the root cause can often be traced to a limited understanding of an infants nutritional needs. Cultures where religions encourage vegetarianism (Hindus and some Buddhists) often raise their children on a strictly vegetarian diet from infancy, with clearly no damaging or lingering long-term side effects. A vegan diet is not dramatically different and can actually lead to several long-term health benefits, if done right. So, yes, it is possible to have a healthy vegan pregnancy and raise a healthy child on a vegan diet, but even the most knowledgeable vegans should closely follow the supervision and recommendations of their pediatricians and vegan nutritionists.
Here are some important things to consider:
Vegan baby food: It can be a bit more time consuming, but making baby food at home is a cost-efficient way of getting your baby the vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables. Many mothers choose to prepare baby food on their own whether vegan or not — it’s just as natural as adults wanting to prepare meals at home rather than relying on packaged, processed or take out foods. Also, when you make it yourself, you will avoid the preservatives in some conventional store-bought baby food and let’s face it, mashing up veggies and fruits is not rocket science. Bananas and avocados are both easily mashed; avocados in particular are a great source of healthy fat. A potato masher makes baked apples, squash, potatoes, peas or carrots palatable; just make sure to remove seeds or tough skins and buy fresh organic produce. When your infant is about six months, you can introduce your child to solid foods after consulting with your doctor.
Soy. This is an issue that can be discussed in depth and would not need one, but probably an entire series to cover the issues involved. Experts across the board recommend breastfeeding, often for the first year. A breastfeeding vegan mother who is careful about her own health and nutritional needs, with a reasonable and varied diet will ensure her child gets most of the nutrition he or she needs in his first 12 months. Vegan mothers unable to breastfeed will probably consider a soy-based substitute for formula, however, Dr. Williams Sears, author of the authoritative The Baby Book, writes that “giving an infant soy at a young age, when intestines are more permeable to allergens, may predispose the child to soy allergies later on, even as an adult.” This is especially important to be aware of if there is a history of allergens in the family. A 2006 study presented the possible dangers of the phytoestrogen in soy as well; while a natural hormone both males and females have, in surplus quantities estrogen can cause serious health problems such as a weak thyroid and possible links to certain cancers later on in life. Infants are more likely than adults to be vulnerable to the estrogen-like effects of the phytoestrogens in soy, so the bottom line is to talk to your baby’s doctor before even thinking of introducing soy into your baby’s diet. More and more children are lactose intolerant these days and therefore there are more healthy non-soy alternatives to cow’s milk available than ever before.
Infant Supplements.:You should also discuss consult with your child’s doctor about whether your baby needs a supplement. Pediatricians most often prescribe infant supplements with iron, vitamin D, folic acid and vitamin B, especially as you wean your infant off breast milk.
Omega-3 and fatty acids: A considerable obstacle in a vegan or vegetarian diet is ensuring your baby gets sufficient quantities of omega-3 and fatty acids, which are crucial to development of the central nervous system, psychomotor skills, and have also been linked to a strong immune system. Found in fish and eggs, vegans mostly get them from nuts, flax seed or supplements. Docosahexaenoic Acid or DHA is an Omega-3 polyunsaturated fat essential to brain development; however our bodies, especially in the early stages, are metabolically incapable of producing it. In fetus and as infants, babies depend on their mother’s body to obtain DHA. Not only does it account for 40% of the mass of the brain and 60% of the retinas, its deficiency causes deteriorating brain function. Again, ask your doctor about a DHA supplement.
Protein: Mix nuts with applesauce in a blender; older babies can try nut butters. Mash beans and brown rice together for a complete protein.
Grains: While you should include whole wheat in your babies diets, their tiny stomachs quickly fill with fiber and can keep them from eating enough.
Calories: In cases of malnutrition in infants in developed countries, the most prominent problem is the parents unawareness of the amount of calories their infant needs. Babies growth is rapid and should be followed carefully by your baby’s pediatrician.
Taste: Babies don’t seem to have a preference to salt or sweet, so don’t salt or sugar baby food. It’s best to avoid giving them a tendency to favor such tastes at such an early stage in their life. Also, studies suggest giving a baby too much sodium predisposes them to high blood pressure later in life.
If you don’t have time to wash, slice, and puree vegetables and perhaps have other young children in the house – always consider buying organic baby food.
Guaranteeing your baby’s health with a vegan diet is a demanding process, but so is raising a baby in the first place! With the proper guidance of an experienced doctor, extensive reading, playing close attention to how your infant responds to the different foods and using common sense, there is currently no nutritional reason to not let your child discover the benefits of a vegan lifestyle from an early age.
This article is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult with your child’s physician regarding his/her specific health and dietary needs before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.