The Vegetarian or Vegan Baby
If you're considering raising your baby as a vegetarian, rest assured that as long as you feed your baby a balanced diet, they won't go short of nutrients. You'll need to ensure your baby gets enough calories, iron, omega 3 and protein.
Iron-rich vegetarian foods include green vegetables such as watercress, spring greens, okra and curly kale, beans, lentils and pulses, iron-rich cereals, iron-fortified bread, and dried fruit such as prunes and apricots (dried fruit however is only suitable for babies over 12 months as they are hard to chew).
Fruit and vegetables, although themselves quite low in iron, contain vitamin C which helps iron absorption. Include fruit or vegetables with your baby's meal, or give them a drink of orange juice with their meal. Caffeine interferes with iron absorption, so make sure your baby doesn't drink tea, coffee, coke or other caffeinated drinks.
Breast and formula milk are high in iron, and although cow's milk can be used after 12 months of age, it is low in iron so many vegetarian parents prefer to use formula milk because it is fortified with vitamins and iron. Some like the peace of mind formula gives, others prefer to make sure their child gets enough iron, calories and vitamins from their diet. If you aren't sure what milk to use for your baby, ask your nurse or see a dietitian.
Omega 3, which is important for eye and brain development, is mainly found in meat, fish and dairy products. If you are breastfeeding, you can boost your baby's intake of omega 3 by eating food that contains linolenic acid, such as flaxseed, canola, and soy oil. Great non-meat sources of omega 3 include soya milk, beans, green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, rapeseed and olive oil.
Making sure your baby has enough protein doesn't need to be difficult. Make sure your baby eats a balanced diet containing pulses, dairy products, eggs, tofu and quorn, bread, cereals. Nuts and seeds are a great source of protein, but these can be a choking hazard so wait until your baby is old enough before giving them these. Nut spreads such as peanut butter and nutella are also good sources of protein (although if you or your partner's family have a history of food allergies you should wait longer before introducing these to your baby). They are also hard to eat as they are sticky so should only be introduced after 12 months.
Tofu and quorn are good sources of protein for vegetarian and vegan babies, but they also contain lots of fibre and are low in calories, which can fill up little tummies quickly, resulting in fewer calories being consumed. They also often contain high levels of salt, so while they are great for protein, use them in moderation.
Fat is important for vegetarian and vegan babies, as babies need more fat when they are under two years old than any other time in their life. Mashed avocado and vegetable oil are great sources of non-animal fat for babies.
If your baby is a fussy eater, consider giving him vitamin drops to ensure he doesn't go short of nutrients.
Can I Bring my Baby up as a Vegan?
The Food Standards Agency doesn't recommend feeding babies vegan diets because it is much harder to ensure they get all the nutrients they need to thrive. If you decide to bring up your baby as a vegan, talk to your doctor to discuss his diet. Your baby's doctor might suggest vitamin drops.
As well as making sure your baby gets enough iron, protein, fat and omega 3, as discussed above, you'll need to give your baby alternative sources of calcium. Vegan babies aged 6-12 months need 525 mg of calcium a day. Baked beans, porridge, hummus, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, soy yoghurt and white bread are good non-dairy sources of calcium. Vegan diets can be especially low in omega 3, so make sure you feed your baby alternatives (see above).
Make sure your baby has enough vitamin B12 in his diet, which is found in eggs and dairy but not fruit and vegetables. Non-animal foods that contain vitamin B12 are soy products, cereals, and yeast extract (although this is high in salt, so should be used very carefully).
Don't use rice and soya milk as a drink instead of cow's milk or formula for your baby. They aren't suitable for babies as they don't contain enough calories or nutrients.
Use egg and dairy product alternatives to ensure your baby gets enough protein.
Vegans need to make sure they get enough vitamin D as it's normally found in eggs and fortified margarine. Your baby might need a vitamin D supplement.