Posted on: August 29, 2019 at 7:33 pm
Last updated: October 26, 2020 at 10:18 am

 The only true “love at first sight” is the moment a mother holds her newborn child for the first time. No matter what health beliefs they uphold, all parents can agree on one thing: They want the best for their children. They want them to grow up healthy and strong. Therefore, it’s vital for all parents to be properly informed when they choose the diet of their newborn. Which is why it’s also good to be informed when stories emerge of infants ending up malnourished on vegan/plant-based diets. 

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Despite its controversy, a plant-based diet can be very beneficial. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics studied well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets and found them to be nutritionally adequate [1]. The diets are primarily made up of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, soy products, seeds, and nuts with a low saturated fat intake. [1] People may choose this diet for multiple reasons like animal rights/welfare, an effort to protect the environment, and to lower their risk of certain chronic diseases. In general, plant-based diets have shown to be conducive to weight loss and help lower the long term risk of developing cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular related death [2]. 

While evidence for long term benefits of a plant-based/vegan diet have been well researched in adults, there is not as much for children. However, a diet that supplies adequate energy, macro and micronutrients is what is most important – and that is something a plant-based and omnivorous diets can do. This information, of course, is something to keep in mind when tragic stories circulate. 

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The Stories of Malnourished Vegan Children

Numerous cases have arisen in past years where infants have been found malnourished due to their vegan diets, such as a baby girl in Australia who was rushed to the hospital after having a seizure. The ER doctor discovered the child was extremely malnourished and was suffering from rickets, where the bones become soft and weak from a vitamin D deficiency.

The parents were convicted and plead guilty to causing dangerous or serious injury to the baby. They had fed her a vegan diet mostly restricted to foods like tofu, rice milk, fruit, potatoes, and oats. These are all healthy foods, but inadequate for a growing infant. The foster-care provider described the 19-month-old as “looking just three months” because of her small size and deficiencies, including a lack of teeth. The girl is now being cared for by other family members, while her parents have supervised visits with her. [3]

A similar story involved an Italian couple who lost custody of their infant son. The 14-month-old weighed as much as a 3-month-old when he was checked into the hospital for an emergency heart surgery for a condition that was worsened by his low levels of calcium. His parents did not supplement his missing nutrients from his vegan diet. [4]

Even more horrifying, a couple in the U.S. was sentenced to life in prison when their 6-week-old son died of malnutrition. His diet consisted of mostly of soy milk and apple juice. He weighed only 3.5 pounds when he passed away.

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These cases beg the question: Is the vegan diet inheritably at fault for child malnourishment, or just a vegan diet executed extremely poorly?

While some experts oppose keeping children on a plant-based diet, others like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics consider the diet nutritionally adequate if done properly. [1] 

Therefore, it does seem possible to keep a baby healthy and growing while staying vegan, although there is a higher risk of malnutrition, just like there is for vegan adults. The caveat here is if you are uneducated in adopting the diet, your risk may be higher than if you were to follow standard recommendations that include animal products. The key thing to remember here is that children must have proper nutritional intake for their rapidly developing bodies, while an adult can live off of poorly balanced diet for a longer period of time. It’s not the diet that’s the danger; it’s miseducation.

“It is difficult to ensure a healthy and balanced vegan diet in young infants, and parents should understand the serious consequences of failing to follow advice regarding supplementation of the diet,” said Dr. Mary Fewtrell, chair of ESPGHAN’s nutrition committee, in a press statement. “The risks of getting it wrong can include irreversible cognitive damage and, in the extreme, death.” [4]

How to Nourish a Vegan Infant

So how can a parent raise a baby on a plant-based diet?

For infants, the ideal food is breast milk. If, for whatever reason, this is not possible, an organic iron fortified soy-based formula is also acceptable.  For infants who will be on plant based diets it’s generally recommended to breastfeed longer. Breast milk is very nutritious and provides the infant with antibodies that strengthens immunity and reduces digestive issues. (The general breastfeeding period is 6–12 months.) Needless to say, it’s a beautiful bonding time between a mother and her baby and should be encouraged. 

When weaning an infant off of breast milk or formula after, ensure he is consuming enough protein by feeding him soy milk fortified with vitamins D and B12. Other plant-based milks don’t have nearly enough protein to emulate cows milk [6]. There are some soy-free brands available that are fortified and high in protein as well. 

Once the baby transitions to real foods, more frequent eating times are required to ensure the child meets his energy needs, since baby stomachs are small and may fill up before enough calories were consumed.

“Childhood is a critical time for growth and brain development,” said Dr. Sheela Magge, an endocrinologist at the Children’s National Health System. “There are critical vitamins and minerals which can be deficient in a vegan diet, particularly vitamin B-12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, zinc, and riboflavin. 

“Vegan diets can also increase the risk of vitamin A deficiency. B-12 comes from milk and eggs and is a specific concern for people on a vegan diet. A lack of sufficient vitamin B-12 can lead to neurological symptoms. Children on vegan diets may also have slightly higher protein requirements than non-vegan children.” [4] 

These deficiencies are dangerous for child and adult vegans. Others include iodine and omega-3 (ALA and algae sourced DHA) and  fatty acids. If these needs cannot be met by whole or fortified foods alone, supplements should be used, especially for children who need these nutrients to develop properly. [1]

Here is a basic chronological progression of how the diet should go:

  • Before 6 months: Breastmilk (or soy-based infant formula) and a daily supplement of 400 IU vitamin D. Continue until the baby is at least two years old.
  • Around 6 months: Start with solid foods that are iron-rich. Continue breastfeeding as needed while the baby is introduced to nuts, seeds, avocado, whole grains, peas, beans, legumes, sweet potatoes, tofu, and healthy oils.
  • One years old: Start feeding the child three meals and two or three snacks daily. Keep in mind that toddlers get full easily but still require a lot of calories.
  • Before 2 years old: Avoid plant-based milk beverages since they do not have enough nutrition to meet the baby’s needs.
  • Toddlers: Include at least 3–4 foods out of the four food groups at every meal, and 2–3 out of the four at every snack. [7]

If you are considering a vegan diet for your baby, do your research to adopt the above tactics. It’s worth repeating that a vegan diet can be a healthy choice if properly managed, and disastrous if not. That being said, any diet can technically be disastrous if done incorrectly, it’s just the degree of risk associated with it. In this case, it can be higher with a plant-based diet. 

If you are considering a vegan diet for your child, first and foremost, consult with a registered dietician or nutritionist, particularly one that specializes in pediatric nutrition. Certain vitamins and minerals become more crucial in different parts of the baby’s growth, and a health practitioner can ensure these requirements are met and check for any deficiencies that might arise. It’s also good to have educated advice in case something does not go according to plan, for example, the child being a picky eater. [4]

Some foods a dietician or nutritionist might recommend include:

  • For 6–8-month old children: iron-fortified infant cereals like oats and porridge, crackers, toast, soft bread, strained fruits and vegetables.
  • 7–8-months: mashed or scrambled tofu, pureed legumes, soft finger foods, soy/coconut yogurt
  • 9–10 months: mashed vegetables and fruits, soy or other vegan cheeses, hemp seeds, chia seeds
  • 10–12 months: rice, tempeh, small pieces of tofu burger, soft chunks of peeled fruit and vegetables

Remember to:

  • wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly
  • avoid adding salt, sugar or spices to the food, 
  • do not give the baby honey or corn syrup during the first 12 months of age
  • cooked legumes should have their skins removed before giving to the baby [8]

A Healthy Child: Our #1 Priority 

Humans are omnivores, which means we are capable of eating a wide variety of foods including animal products that have their own nutritional merits. However, the point here is not insight a meat-eating vs veganism debate.

Since many vegans choose their lifestyle due to health and ethical reasons, it’s reasonable they would want to raise their children in accordance with this. Fortunately, it is possible to do so with proper education and guidance. 

Whichever diet the parents follow, the health of the baby must come first during this tender stage where their bodies and brains are developing. The health of children, like many other factors at this age, can impact the rest of their lives.

It’s recommended that all new parents get the guidance they need to care for a newborn. It’s normal to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing when the first child is born. Fortunately, there are many resources and professionals eager to help. Problems may arise when the parents don’t provide proper care or medical attention for the baby, as seen with the above horror stories.

Raising a child vegan is not inherently a bad thing, and should not be put to shame despite the bad flack it’s receiving from these stories. Misinformation is the true danger, and can just as easily affect parents that don’t follow a vegan lifestyle. Education is the key to empower parents to apply any diet. Here is to raising happy and healthy children!

  1. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Vegetarian Diets http://www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatrightpro%20files/practice/position%20and%20practice%20papers/position%20papers/vegetarian-diet.ashx Dec 2016
  2. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegan-diet-benefits#section7
  3. Julia Naftulin. A 19-month-old had thinning bones and no teeth after her parents fed her a vegan diet of fruit, rice milk, potatoes, and tofu https://www.insider.com/vegan-baby-health-risks-malnourished-rickets-2019-8 Aug 22, 2019
  4. Leah Cambell. Is a Vegan Diet Safe for Children? https://www.healthline.com/health-news/is-a-vegan-diet-safe-for-children#1 May 31, 2017
  5. Sept 5, 2007
  6. Lindsay Tigar. How to Raise a Vegan Baby. https://www.parents.com/baby/feeding/nutrition/how-to-raise-a-vegan-baby/ 
  7. October 10, 2017[8] Simon J hill.. Vegan Infants: How to Plan a Plant-based Diet for Your Children https://plantproof.com/vegan-infants-what-parents-need-to-know/
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Sarah Schafer
Founder of The Creative Palate
Sarah is a baker, cook, author, and blogger living in Toronto. She believes that food is the best method of healing and a classic way of bringing people together. In her spare time, Sarah does yoga, reads cookbooks, writes stories, and finds ways to make any type of food in her blender. Her blog The Creative Palate shares the nutrition and imagination of her recipes for others embarking on their journey to wellbeing.

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