The earliest food for a baby is ideally breast milk. Many benefits to the infant are conveyed by breast-feeding including some enhancement of the immune system, protection against infection, and reduced risk of allergies. In addition, breast milk was designed for baby humans and quite probably contains substances needed by growing infants which are not even known to be essential and are not included in infant formulas.
With a little attention to detail, vegan diets and breast-feeding are a good combination. In fact, several reports show that milk of vegetarian women is lower in pesticides than the milk of women eating typical American diets.
If you choose to breast-feed, be especially careful that you are getting enough vitamin B12. If your diet does not contain reliable sources of vitamin B12, your breastfed infant should receive supplements of 0.4-0.5 micrograms of vitamin B12 daily.
Vitamin D for Vegan Infants
See that your infant receives at least 30 minutes of sunlight exposure per week if wearing only a diaper or two hours per week fully clothed without a hat to maintain normal vitamin D levels. Dark-skinned infants require greater sunshine exposure. If sunlight exposure is limited — due to factors like a cloudy climate, winter, or being dark-skinned — infants who are solely breast-fed should receive vitamin D supplements of 10 micrograms (400 IU) per day. Vitamin D deficiency leads to rickets (soft, improperly mineralized bones). Human milk contains only very low levels of vitamin D.
Iron for Vegan Infants
The iron content of breast milk is generally low, no matter how good the mother’s diet is. The iron which is in breast milk is readily absorbed by the infant, however. The iron in breast milk is adequate for the first four to six months or longer. Recommendations call for use of iron supplements (1 mg/kg/day) beginning at four months to insure adequate iron intake. Breast-fed infants may require supplemental fluoride after six months if water intake is low and if supplements are prescribed by a dentist or pediatrician.
Formulas for Vegan Infants
If for any reason you choose not to breast-feed or if you are using formula to supplement breast-feeding, there are several soy-based formulas available. These products support normal infant growth and development. Soy-based formulas are used by vegan families as the best option when breast-feeding is not possible. At this time, all soy formulas contain vitamin D derived from lanolin (sheep’s wool). Some soy-based formulas (such as Parent’s Choice and some store brands) may contain animal-derived fats so check the ingredient label. Soy formulas are used exclusively for the first six months.
Soy milk, rice milk, other plant milks, and homemade formulas should not be used to replace breast milk or commercial infant formula during the first year. These foods do not contain the proper ratio of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, nor do they have enough of many vitamins and minerals to be used as a significant part of the diet in the first year.
Graduating to Solid Foods
Supplemental food (food besides breast milk and formula) can be started at different times in different children depending on the child’s rate of growth and stage of development but are usually begun somewhere in the middle of the first year. Some signs of the time to start introducing solid foods are: the ability to sit unsupported, disappearance of the tongue extrusion reflex, increased interest in foods others are eating, and an ability to pick up food and put it in the mouth.
Introduce one new food at a time so that any source of allergies can be later identified. Many people use iron-fortified infant rice cereal as the first food. This is a good choice as it is a good source of iron and rice cereal is least likely to cause an allergic response. Cereal can be mixed with expressed breast milk or soy formula so the consistency is fairly thin. Formula or breast milk feedings should continue as usual. Start with one cereal feeding daily and work up to two meals daily or 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Oats, barley, corn, and other grains can be ground in a blender and then cooked until very soft and smooth. These cereals can be introduced one at a time. However, they do not contain much iron, so iron supplements should be continued.
When cereals are well accepted, fruit, fruit juice, and vegetables can be introduced. Fruits and vegetables should be well mashed or puréed. Mashed banana is one food that many infants especially enjoy. Other fruits include mashed avocado, applesauce, and puréed canned peaches or pears. Citrus fruits and juices are common allergens and should not be introduced until the first birthday. Mild vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweet potatoes, and green beans should be cooked well and mashed. There is no need to add spices, sugar, or salt to cereals, fruits, and vegetables. Grain foods such as soft, cooked pasta or rice, soft breads, dry cereals, and crackers can be introduced as the baby becomes more adept at chewing.
By age seven to eight months, good sources of protein can be introduced. These include well-mashed cooked dried beans, mashed tofu, and soy yogurt. Children should progress from mashed or puréed foods to pieces of soft food. Smooth nut and seed butters can be used to make sauces or dips. To avoid choking, nut and seed butters should not be spread on bread or crackers or given to babies by the spoonful until after the first birthday.
Many parents choose to use commercially prepared baby foods. There are products available for vegan infants. Careful label reading is recommended. Since commercial products contain limited selections for the older vegan infant, many parents opt to prepare their own baby foods. Foods should be well washed, cooked thoroughly, and blended or mashed to appropriate consistency. Home-prepared foods can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days or frozen in small quantities for later use.
Certainly it makes sense for vegans to continue breast-feeding for a year or longer, if possible, because breast milk is a rich source of nutrients. Vegan infants should be weaned to a fortified soy milk containing calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Low-fat or non-fat soy milks should not be used before age two. Milks based on rice, oats, hemp, almonds or other nuts, and coconut are not recommended as a primary beverage for infants and toddlers as they are quite low in protein and energy.
Image source: Bradley Gordon/Flickr