Hi, I’m Maddie, wife to Reece and mum to 15-month-old Arthur. We are raising our son Vegan. We made this choice for a variety of reasons so I will start with some background information about our family. As a couple, my husband and I have been vegetarian for about seven years and fully vegan over a year (apart from the odd slip up – why is there milk powder in everything!) Dairy doesn’t particularly agree with me and we were inspired to make a change for environmental reasons, but ethics and health incentives followed soon after.
When we had Arthur, we did a lot of research on whether you can safely raise a vegan baby. My midwife and doctors were very happy for me to be vegan whilst pregnant and my midwife even said I had the highest iron levels she has seen in a pregnant woman (for reference, I don’t supplement). However, I am sure, like us, you have seen the horror stories of neglected vegan babies. I remember reading one story where the parents had just given homemade formula (eek!), wheatgrass juice and water to their child. The important thing to bear in mind when reading these stories is that whilst they call themselves vegan, what they actually are is neglectful. Veganism by definition aims to reduce harm to living beings, including children! After seeing that the NHS and many other large health organisations around the world say that a well-planned vegan diet can be healthful for all ages, we decided to go ahead with vegan baby led weaning. Although it made me a little nervous at first, I did a lot of research and did a baby first aid course which helped put my mind at ease. We have really enjoyed seeing him experiment with, and enjoy lots of different flavours and textures. What I had never expected was to have hit the 100 different foods mark at around eight months old and for it to radically encourage our whole family to eat more healthily and far more variety.
Photos: Child and Adult portions of a stunning vegan meal
Providing your children with plant-based meals can appeal to many different people – including those whose children have dairy or egg allergies. As I mentioned, the NHS states that a well-planned vegan diet is suitable and healthy for all ages of life, including pregnancy and infancy. But what does that mean? Well there are some key macro and micronutrients to consider – whether you are vegan, vegetarian or omnivore. Please bear in mind that I am not a doctor or nutritionist but all the information I am sharing has come from research I have done through looking at NHS sources, talking to registered dieticians and referring to information provided by large health organisations, such as WHO.
The question I hear most as a vegan is ‘Where do you get your protein from?’ Protein is in so many different foods and if you are eating the right number of calories, you are unlikely to be protein deficient. We are living in a world that seems to be obsessed with this micronutrient. Some vegan foods with high levels of protein are: tofu, tempeh, seitan, nuts, beans, lentils, chickpeas, edamame, peas and even potatoes. Next to consider is fat. Whilst so many of us, as adults, try to reduce the fat we eat, a baby’s diet should actually be made up of around 30-40% fat. Healthy fats in a vegan diet can include avocado, nut and seed butters, olive oil (or other oils such as flax and avocado), hemp hearts, chia seeds, ground flax, vegan yoghurts, tahini, hummus etc. These fats are great even if you are an omnivore and are cholesterol-free. You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned carbs yet – carbohydrates are definitely the area I find easiest to provide. Something related to consider, is that whilst brown bread and wholegrains are very healthy, they are also very high in fibre and can fill a baby up before they have had a chance to eat enough, so it is recommended to serve simple carbohydrates, like white bread to young children. We have decided to serve a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates but to be mindful of there being too much fibre in one meal.
The three main types of micronutrient are vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Whilst a lot of nutrients found in meat and dairy are abundant in plant foods, a few can be trickier to find, and you do need to be mindful of where different key nutrients are coming from. One thing I can say though that whilst I occasionally get told by well-meaning omni friends or strangers that my son can’t be getting certain nutrients, I am yet to have a single one be able to tell me where their child gets a daily or weekly dose of most micronutrients whereas I can tell them exactly how I am providing my son with what he needs. It is also worth noting that if you baby is on formula, then a large amount of these nutrients will have been added already but breastfed babies also get a lot from breastmilk, especially if Mum eats a healthy diet and supplements where needed. The key micronutrients I focus on are:
This is an important supplement for anyone in the UK. Due to the slightly squished shape of the Earth, and the position of the UK, for around half the year our distance from the sun means UV levels are too low for our bodies to synthesis Vitamin D. On average, you need at least fifteen minutes of direct sunlight to arms and legs in UV level three or above to produce a day’s worth. This can be problematic for little ones, as they shouldn’t be directly in the sun and sun cream, whilst really important, also blocks UV rays. That is why the NHS recommend a vitamin d supplement. You can supplement with a multivitamin liquid or vitamin D spray. Not all Vitamin D supplements are vegan. D2 is vegan safe, whereas D3 comes from either lichens or lanolin (a substance on sheep’s wool)
Interesting, it is predicted, that like vitamin D, a large percentage of the population is deficient in B12. B12 comes from bacteria in soil and agricultural animals get it in their diets through grazing and eating outdoors. Due to farming becoming more industrialised, animals are now often given B12 supplements. Babies from seven to twelve months need 0.5mcg a day and from one to three years need 0.9mcg. You can do this through supplementing, or whilst a little harder to ensure enough, you can provide fortified foods. Nutritional yeast, a nutty, slightly cheesy flavoured flake (I know this isn’t selling it) is often fortified with it and can be sprinkled on savoury foods or used in recipes. Many plant milks or yoghurt are also fortified.
Iodine is a mineral used to make thyroid hormones. It helps brain and bone development during the early years of life. This is probably the area we found trickiest, as while we used iodised salt in our food, under ones shouldn’t have added salt! Furthermore, too much iodine can actually be dangerous. We made sure to choose a plant-based milk that had added iodine to use for cereals and cooking but remember breast milk or formula only before they turn one! Now Arthur is over one, we use Oatley Barista and Alpro Growing Up milk as his main drinks as they are fortified with iodine. There are others available too. Whilst seaweed snacks also contain iodine, they can be very variable, making it easy to get too little or too much, so they aren’t the most reliable source. Those with thyroid problems should also be cautious about using too much.
Omega 3’s (ALA, DHA, EPA)
What are all these strange letters? Did you know there are three forms of Omega 3? ALA is found in flaxseed, hemp hearts, chia seeds and walnuts to name a few sources, which is handy as we can’t produce it in our bodies. ALA is then converted to DHA, but rates can be very variable, and the conversion process isn’t very effective, so whilst I include these foods in our meals daily, I also feel it is incredibly important to supplement. Remember the fish, who often become the source of Omega 3s in omnivorous diets, got their Omega 3 from algae, so why not just skip the middleman! There are a few different brands, but we like Opti3. For babies, you can piece a capsule and squeeze into their water or milk.
Iron deficiency is common in children regardless of diets. Amazingly, children are born with an iron store, but at around six months of age this is becoming depleted. This is why baby’s early meals should focus on iron rich foods. You can improve the body’s ability to absorb plant based iron by serving iron rich foods alongside those high in vitamin C. Calcium has the opposite affect (and for adults, tannins in tea as well) as it can hinder the absorption of iron, so try to consider this when combining foods. If you are worried about providing iron, you can find multivitamin liquid containing iron.
A large majority of plant based faux-dairy products are fortified with calcium. Some good sources of calcium are tahini, leafy greens, lentils and broccoli. Some brands of tofu are also calcium set. Off the top of my head, I know that Cauldron tofu is calcium set whilst Tofoo is not. There are a number of vegetables that contain calcium. Of course, breast milk and formula will also provide calcium, but if breastfeeding remember that if you are calcium deficient, that your body will do everything it can to provide calcium for your baby which can be to the detriment of your own bones! Vitamin D is needed for the absorption of calcium so make sure you are supplementing it.
Photo: Happy and thriving Arthur
I hope this lengthy rambling will be of some help to anyone considering going to a vegan or plant-based diet, coping with allergies or just wanting to try a few more vegan meals. I hope, in time, I can share some more practical tips and recipes too. P.S. I couldn’t resist sneaking in some photos of our happy, healthy and thriving vegan baby to help break down the stereotypes!
The Daddy Sleep Consultant: I often get asked questions about if and how a vegan diet influences sleep in babies and toddler. Veganism isn’t a topic I profess to know much about so I asked Maddie to kindly write a blog for me about a child vegan diet. I hope you enjoyed.
Do any other readers follow a vegan diet for their little ones? Or readers that have considered doing it but have some concerns about doing so? I would love to hear from you in the comments section below. Also, you can follow Maddie on Instagram @feeding_arthur for meal ideas.
I’m a baby and toddler sleep consultant specialising in designing gentle sleep training programmes for babies and toddlers. I work with clients on a one to one basis and I also have a series of age-specific online courses for you to implement at your own pace.