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Plant based diets are increasing in popularity as they’re better for our health, the health of the planet and the health of animals . Going vegan has never been so popular, and the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019 .
I live just along the coast from Brighton, the vegan capital of the UK and see lots of families who are thinking about raising their babies and children on a vegan diet or who have already made the leap!
Typical adult vegan diets tend to be low in fat and high in fibre which is not suitable for growing children who need a lot more energy and nutrients from food in order to meet their nutritional requirements for normal growth and development.
Did you know that vegan diets are naturally high in fibre and too much fibre can fill little tummies quickly, curbing appetite and stopping eating before the child has actually managed to take enough nutrition from their meals?
In addition there are other critical nutrients that have to be carefully thought about for babies and children, so parents need to consider meal planning and the food they offer in order to make sure they meet their unique nutritional requirements.
Below is an overview of the nutrients that need a little more consideration when planning meals for vegan babies and children.
Is a vegan diet safe for babies and young children?
The safety of a vegan diet all comes down to the types of foods that your little one is eating. It has been recognised that a vegan diet can be enjoyed by children and adults if the diet is well planned .
Ultimately, if you’re bringing up your baby or child on a vegan diet, you need to ensure they get a wide variety of foods to provide the energy and vitamins they need for growth. You need to take care that all nutritional needs are met and seek support from a registered dietitian with experience in paediatrics.
What milk should a vegan baby have?
Breastfeeding has many long-term benefits for your baby which last right into adulthood. It’s recommended that babies have nothing apart from breastmilk for around the first 6 months of their life but any breast milk that you give your baby has a positive effect .
If you are not able to breastfeed or choose not to, there are no infant formulas available on the UK market that are truly vegan. Soya formula can be given to babies over 6 months (but not before)  but the vitamin D source comes from the wool of sheep.
Therefore, the only milk suitable for vegan babies is breast milk. If mum eats a well-balanced diet there is no reason why nutrients like selenium and iodine won’t be passed on through her breast milk, but It may be worth seeking professional advice from a registered dietitian to ensure that your diet contains enough for you and for your baby.
Plant based milks such as soy milk are suitable as a main drink for over 2’s, and can be used in cooking for under 2’s but are very low in energy and protein in comparison to cow’s milk and so shouldn’t be thought of as a direct replacement.
Avoid rice milk for under 5’s as it contains traces of inorganic arsenic naturally occurring from the rice paddy fields but in a form that’s too concentrated for little ones .
Choose unsweetened and nutrient fortified plant-based milks where you can, but be in the knowledge that additional energy and protein needs to come from food.
Critical nutrients for babies, toddlers and children
It’s highly unlikely that a vegan baby or child will be deficient in protein but it’s useful to know that the plant based milk alternatives are not suitable as a main drink for under 2’s and even children over 2 need to ensure they get protein elsewhere in their diets as the protein content of these milks are very low.
Plant based proteins include beans, lentils, chickpeas, peas and other pulses. Nuts (go for butters or ground versions), seeds, seitan and tofu.
Your baby or child should have a plant based protein food at each meal.
Meat replacements such as Quorn can be included in a weaning diet but I wouldn’t recommend offering them more than one or twice a week.
Whilst they are good sources of protein they don’t have as many vitamins and minerals as other vegan protein sources and can be quite salty. Some of these products are fortified with iron and vitamin B12 so you could look for these in the supermarkets.
Iron is present in beans and pulses, dried fruits, peas and green leafy vegetables. But all of these are also high in fibre. Nut butters, seed butters, tofu and seitan are also good vegan sources of iron.
Iron fortified breakfast cereals (check the food labelling to make sure your child’s cereal is fortified) is also a really useful, child friendly addition to a vegan diet but do avoid those that are sweetened.
Each time an iron rich food is eaten make sure there is a vitamin C rich food on their plate too, this could be a fruit, salad, lightly cooked vegetable or a drink of diluted fruit juice (dilute 1 part juice to 10 parts water as the natural acid in fruit juice is harmful for developing teeth).
Iron deficiency is a really common nutritional problem for children in the UK and it often goes unnoticed.
If you feel your child is pale, tired, has a poor immune system and is picking up everything going, they may be iron deficient. Take them to the GP just to get checked out .
Low iron can affect intellect, developmental motor skills, behaviour, growth and ability to concentrate as they get older , so it’s important to pick this up and change their diet if they are low in iron.
Your baby or child should have iron rich food at each meal.
This vitamin is found in fermented yeast products such as Marmite but unfortunately this is very salty and shouldn’t really be given to babies and young toddlers.
Over 2’s can have a little once or twice a week. Some other foods are also fortified, particularly breakfast cereals and plant-based milks, but most children will need to take a supplement to ensure they get enough.
Children need vitamin B12 for red blood cell formation and not enough can lead to a different type of anaemia, they can feel utterly exhausted without enough.
Iodine levels can often be an issue because the amount of iodine in plant foods depends upon how much was in the soil they were grown in.
Babies and children shouldn’t take seaweed as a source of iodine as it contains too much for their small bodies, although adults often do.
The best way for toddlers over 1 to obtain iodine is with a supplement, for over 2’s they could use a mixture of an appropriate fortified plant milk or take the Veg 1 supplement from the vegan society. Babies under 1 really should have a dietetic assessment.
Calcium is found in beans and pulses, tofu, sesame seeds, dark green vegetables and white bread. For over two’s check that your plant-based milk alternative contains added calcium, many of them do.
Under 2’s will get enough from breast milk or their formula providing mum’s diet is rich in calcium. Nutrients will always go to baby first, leaving mum deficient so definitely check you are eating enough.
Not enough calcium can cause weak bones and poor growth and coupled with not enough vitamin D can make your baby prone to developing rickets. And mums are at risk of osteopenia and brittle bones.
Vitamin D also known as the sunshine vitamin is not really a vitamin as it’s a hormone used for bone health, and you can’t get enough of it from food.
Vitamin D is produced when sunlight hits the skin but your baby and child needs to get this from a supplement as in the northern hemisphere we don’t access adequate sunlight in the winter months and cover up in sun cream in the summer.
Under 1’s need 8.5-10mcg (micrograms) from birth and over 1’s need the full 10mcg / day.
Check the supplement you are giving because not all are suitable for vegans and not all contain the 8.5-10mcg they need. I like Nature and Nurture drops which provide the recommended dose of vitamins A, C and D and they’re also vegan. They also have a vitamin D only drop which is suitable from birth for breastfed babies.
Selenium is another nutrient where the levels are determined by the soil in which the plant foods are grown in, it’s used to control the speed of a lot of bodily reactions.
Most vegan babies will get enough selenium from their mothers breastmilk or their formula but when feeds reduce, they will likely need a supplement. It’s good to check in with a paediatric dietitian around this time so they can give you personalised advice.
Brazil nuts are very high in selenium and if ground up are fine to include in your baby’s diet.
Omega 3 is one of the most critical nutrients needed in the first two years of life and is extremely beneficial for both children and adults too.
It’s needed for optimal brain and eye development and is linked to behaviour and intelligence . It’s also proven to have heart health benefits.
However this beneficial type of omega 3 is found almost exclusively in oily fish. The plant based version of omega 3 is in a different form that your child’s body has to convert. The conversion is inefficient and only small amounts are formed.
You can find it in chia, hemp, tofu, linseeds, rapeseed oil, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts – remember whole nuts are a choking risk for children under 5.
However because research in this field is limited, there are no official reputable guidelines regarding the amount of plant based omega 3 foods your baby or child should eat.
However algal oil is a vegan supplement made from algae which contains the same type of omega 3 and in a similar amount to oily fish , therefore I always recommend supplementing your child’s diet with this.
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)
This is a vitamin found mainly in dairy foods and so can be lacking sometimes in vegan children’s diets.
Nutritional yeast is a good way of obtaining this as are wheatgerm, pulses, almond butter, avocado and mushrooms.
Some plant based milks are also fortified with vitamin B2, check the nutrition label on the back of pack to see if yours is.
Should my vegan baby take supplements?
Yes. All breastfed babies should have vitamin D drops from birth and from 6 months all babies are recommended to have vitamins A, C and D if they are having less than 500ml of infant formula .
Very few baby vitamin supplements are truly vegan as many contain vitamin D that is obtained from the wool of sheep but there are some available such as Nature and Nurture vitamin drops.
There are some vitamins and minerals that are more difficult to get on a plant based diet, which include vitamin B12, iodine, selenium, and then others which little ones on a plant based diet may need larger quantities of such as calcium, iron and zinc. Because of this an additional supplement may be worthwhile considering.
The Vegan Society have a multivitamin which is suitable for 1 year of age and may be needed if you’re concerned your little one might not be getting all they need.
It’s not uncommon for toddlers to have fluctuating appetites, become a fussy eater, eats a diet containing a lot of favourite but processed foods or still breastfeeds a lot. When this is the case an additional supplement should be considered.
Seeing a dietitian and having your child’s diet properly assessed is the only way to know for sure whether additional supplements truly are needed. It is possible to take too much!
You should also be aware that the Vegan Society Veg-1 supplement doesn’t contain the full range of nutrients so it might not be the right fit for your little one.
As mentioned earlier, for your little one’s Omega-3 intake it is worth considering an algae oil supplement so that you can be assured that they are getting a reliable source of this critical nutrient, essential for brain, nerve and eye development .
What else do you need to think about?
When children are at home with you it’s much easier to control what they eat but once they start venturing out to nursery or birthday parties there are a few additional plans you may need to make.
Most nurseries should be able to accommodate a vegan diet if you speak to them before your little one enrols.
The nurseries that I have encountered rarely have worked with a Registered Dietitian on their menus to ensure that nutritional needs are going to be met. But they do try to match the meals of vegan children with the non-vegan children so they have similar meals which encourages a sense of belonging.
My advice would be to ask the nursery for a copy of their menu and look across the day to make sure that the critical nutrients we have discussed above are represented in meals and snacks.
Nurseries are often used to dealing with special diets for allergies and medical conditions and most are happy to accommodate with alternative suggestions where they can.
One of the biggest issues I’ve had is them replacing a home cooked meal with a processed vegan alternative like a burger or sausage which often contain more salt and additives than young children need.
Be aware that some parents will bring in birthday cakes and your little one might feel excluded when they can’t join in. You could leave a small supply of vegan fun foods at nursery to be given to your little one on these occasions so they can join in with their friends.
These can be tricky to navigate if your little one is vegan but their friends aren’t.
My best advice is to prepare ahead, chat to the parents to find out what food they are going to be offering and take a ready plated meal to closely match the birthday food that’s on offer.
Most hosts will welcome this as it stops them having to prepare a suitable alternative, you could even offer to share a dish with the rest of the party so they can all experience something new together!
Some families choose to let their little one experience the party and the food without restriction. This may mean that they experience non-vegan foods and this is a big decision for families to make.
The last thing you want is for your little one to end up with an empty plate. What’s really important for children is not to make them feel different, excluded or isolated from their group of friends.
Planning in advance is usually necessary at these group events.
When your little one hits their toddler years you might discover that your once perfect eater has gone and you’ve hit the food refusal stage.
This is completely normal (in the main) and is part of children’s cognitive development where they enter a neophobic phase where fear of trying something new (or previously liked) overtakes everything.
A fussy vegan toddler can potentially be problematic because it’s likely they won’t meet their nutritional requirements.
This is when I would definitely recommend some professional help as we know that the way you manage this stage can make all the difference for years to come.
When should I get help?
If you’re raising vegan children or babies on a vegan diet I would always recommend working with a paediatric dietitian with experience in vegan diets to make sure that your little one is getting the right nutrients, in the right amounts and in the right balance.
If your little one is taking vitamin drops, seek guidance to ensure the dosage is correct and in balance with their diet.
A health visitor or GP will rarely have adequate knowledge as they aren’t nutrition professionals so do seek the support of a Registered Dietitian, the only nutrition professionals governed by law which is your quality assurance marker.
A dietitian will be able to recommend how often you’ll need to have their diet re-checked and what life stages to watch out for such as starting nursery or fussy eating.
If your little one is on a vegan diet and you think they are not eating foods from each of the food groups or missing out on some of the essential nutrition above please get in touch.