Feeding Vegetarian and Vegan Infants and Toddlers

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
Feeding Vegetarian and Vegan Infants | Veggies on a plate

zest_marina/Thinkstock

Well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns can be healthful and appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle, including infants and toddlers.

Time and attention are necessary to help young children, vegetarian or not, get all the nutrients they need for normal growth and development.

For the first six months, breast milk is encouraged as the main source of nutrition. If breastfeeding is not possible or is stopped, use infant formula fortified with iron. Cow's milk, soy milk, rice milk and homemade formulas are not appropriate for babies during the first year because they have the wrong ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrate. They also are missing important nutrients for health, growth and development.

Solid foods can be introduced in the same way as for non-vegetarian infants. Replace meat with well-cooked pureed beans or mashed tofu and soy or dairy yogurt and cheese.

Since breast milk is such a rich source of nutrients, vegan mothers may want to breast-feed for more than one year. After 12 months, vegan infants may be weaned with full-fat soy milk that is fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and D. If a vegan or vegetarian baby is weaned from breast milk before 12 months, they should receive iron-fortified infant formula until they are 1 year old. Milk alternatives, such as soy, rice, almond, hemp, etc., are not recommended during the first year of life because they do not have the right amounts of nutrients.

Nutrients Needing Special Attention

When feeding vegetarian or vegan children, pay close attention to the following nutrients:

  • Vitamin B12: Vegetarians can obtain B12 from milk products and eggs and fortified foods such as soy beverages, cereals and meat substitutes. Vegans, both breast-feeding moms and children, need a good source of B12 and may require a supplement in addition to fortified sources of this vitamin.
  • Vitamin D: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all breast-fed infants receive 400 IU per day of supplemental vitamin D starting shortly after birth. This should continue until your child consumes the same amount of vitamin D from fortified milk: at least one quart per day of whole cow's milk or full-fat soy milk. However, these milks should not be introduced before 12 months of age.
  • Calcium: Breast- and formula-fed babies, as well as toddlers who consume milk and dairy foods, usually get plenty of additional calcium from foods including yogurt and cheese. For vegan toddlers, calcium-fortified foods and beverages or supplements may be necessary. See a registered dietitian nutritionist for advice.
  • Iron: The iron content of breast milk is low, even if moms are eating well. Full-term infants are born with enough iron for 4 to 6 months. After this age, breastfed infants need an outside source, so ask your pediatrician about supplemental iron until solid foods are introduced. Other sources of iron include iron-fortified cereals and formulas, as well as mashed tofu and well-cooked pureed beans.
  • Protein: Babies need plenty of protein for rapid growth during the first year. Both breast milk and infant formula supply protein. When solid foods are introduced, plant-based sources of protein include well-cooked pureed beans and mashed tofu. After 12 months of age, fortified full-fat soy milk is another option. Lacto-ovo toddlers can get protein from yogurt, cottage cheese and eggs.
  • Dietary Fiber: Lots of fiber can fill up toddlers quickly. Provide frequent meals and snacks. Use some refined grains, such as fortified cereals, breads and pasta, or peel the skin on fruits and serve cooked instead of raw vegetables more often.
To help vegetarian children meet their energy and nutrient needs and to learn more about foods that may pose a choking hazard, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.

Find an Expert

Need serious help making a plan? The nutrition experts in our professional membership are ready to help you create the change to improve your life.

Find an Expert