Well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns can be healthful and appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle, including for 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 recommended 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 infant formulas are not appropriate for babies during the first year because they have the wrong ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates. They also lack important nutrients for health, growth and development. Sugar-sweetened beverages and beverages with low-calorie sweeteners should also be avoided.
Since breast milk is such a rich source of nutrients, vegan mothers may want to breastfeed for more than one year. After 12 months, if weaning with soy milk, choose one that is full-fat and 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.
Age-appropriate solid foods can be introduced to vegetarian infants in the same way as for non-vegetarian infants when they are developmentally ready, which is around four to six months of age.
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 and dairy foods, eggs and fortified foods such as soy beverages, some cereals and meat substitutes. Vegans, both breastfeeding 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 breastfed 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: Breastfed 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. Then include sources of iron as a first food, such as iron-fortified infant cereals, mashed tofu and well-cooked pureed beans.
- Zinc: During the first six months, infants who are breastfed will receive enough zinc from their mother’s milk. After that time when solid foods are introduced, sources of zinc are also recommended as first foods. Vegetarian examples of foods that provide zinc include: well-cooked mashed beans and fortified infant cereals.
- 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 or smooth nut butter spread thinly on a piece of bread (not by the spoonful). After 12 months of age, fortified full-fat soy milk is another option. Lacto-ovo toddlers can additionally get protein from yogurt, cottage cheese and eggs.
- Dietary Fiber: Although foods with dietary fiber are beneficial, 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.