Reed Mangels, PhD, RD shares the science of feeding vegan infants.
I am deeply saddened when I see headlines such as “Vegan Baby Hospitalized for Severe Malnutrition” or “Vegan Couple Sentenced to Life over Baby’s Death.” These tragedies are needless and could easily be prevented by following some basic guidelines for infant feeding.
For the first 6 months after birth, babies should ideally be given breast milk and only breast milk. That’s according to not only the American Academy of Pediatrics but also the World Health Organization. If breast feeding is not possible, a commercial infant formula is the only other alternative. That’s it, for the first 6 months. Juice, cereals, plant milks, even soy milk are not the right foods for young infants and can lead to inadequate nutrition. Breast milk and formula contain readily absorbed nutrients with ratios of protein, fat and carbohydrate that support the baby’s growth. Breastfeeding should continue at least through the first year with infant formula the only safe alternative as a primary beverage. When solids are introduced, after age 6 months, vegan infants should be given nutritious foods such as pureed fruits and vegetables, strained or mashed beans, tofu, and infant cereals. Vegan diets can easily meet an older infant’s or toddler’s needs for protein, vitamins, and minerals.
If we look closely into the news reports of malnourished “vegan” infants, we see that they’ve been given “mainly soy milk and apple juice” or that they have “multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies.” Infants whose mothers are well-nourished and who are breastfeeding successfully or who are getting adequate infant formula are not going to have multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Just as for any other infant, breastfed vegan infants need supplements of iron and vitamin D. Deficiencies of iron, calcium, and other nutrients that are reported in sensational news stories point to a lack of knowledge on the part of parents about what constitutes a healthy diet for an infant. Yes, it does take time and thought to feed infants and young children nutritious diets but the result is worth it.