This “Feeding your Baby, a Vegetarian Diet?” material is of a general nature and has been provided for informational purposes only. We recommend that you also consult your doctor, dietitian, pediatrician or Plunket nurse to make sure you have all the right information.Vegan diets are more difficult to achieve a nutritionally adequate diet for young children. If you are considering a vegan diet for your child, always consult a qualified health professional for individual advice and supplementation as required.
Feeding your Baby, a Vegetarian Diet?
There are different types of vegetarianism:
- Lacto-ovo Vegetarian: Excludes all meat, poultry and seafood from their diet, consumes eggs and milk products.
- Lacto Vegetarian: Excludes all meat, poultry, seafood and eggs from their diet, consumes milk products.
- Pescatarian: Excludes all meat and poultry, consumes seafood, eggs and milk products.
- Vegan: Excludes all animal products from their diet (meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, milk and animal derived ingredients)
An appropriately planned lacto-ovo vegetarian diet with plenty of variety from the essential food groups can be nutritionally adequate for infants, but care must be taken. You can still provide baby with all the nutrients they need. Be aware that some poorly planned vegetarian diets can be low in energy, protein, iron, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc.
The inclusion of animal milk products and eggs in a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet makes it easier to provide baby with a nutritionally balanced diet, compared to a vegan diet. Eggs and milk products provide essential nutrients such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D which are not present naturally in plant foods.
A vegan diet is more restrictive, and it can be difficult for babies to receive all the nutrients, protein and energy they require from food. In a vegan diet at risk vitamins and minerals include calcium, iron, zinc, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B12. Appropriate supplements need to be prescribed, such as Vitamin B12. If considering a vegan diet, always involve a qualified health professional for individual dietary advice to ensure nutrient requirements can be met. Talk to your doctor for a dietitian or pediatrician referral.
Herein, this article refers to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (vegetarian).
We also advise those considering a vegetarian diet to consult a pediatrician, dietitian or health professional to help along the journey.
The food journey:
Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. Breast milk (or infant formula) is all baby needs for around the first 6 months. A vegetarian diet may be introduced in conjunction with breast milk once baby is ready to start solids. Introduce solids at around 6 months when baby shows cues of readiness to begin - they can hold their head up well, is interested in watching you eat, opens their mouth when food approaches and their tongue doesn’t push food out of their mouth.
Gradually introduce foods in an appropriate texture to your baby, starting with cooked puréed vegetables, fruit and iron rich foods. During the first year of life introduce a variety of foods from the four food groups to provide new flavours, energy and essential nutrients. There is no need to add salt or sugar to baby’s food.
The vegetarian food groups are:
Vegetables and fruit – include a variety of colours e.g. yellow, red, orange and green vegetables
Legumes, nuts, seeds and eggs e.g. lentils, tofu, beans
Grain foods e.g. breads, iron fortified infant cereals, rice, pasta
Milk products e.g. yoghurt, cheese
Always offer food in an appropriate texture, by well-cooking food and modifying to a suitable texture and shape that is safe for your baby’s stage of development.
Nutrients of concern in vegetarian diets:
Young children grow and develop rapidly and require energy and nutrient dense foods for fuel.
Many plant-based foods are bulky because of their higher dietary fibre content. Babies and children’s stomachs are small, and they may feel full quickly from bulky fibre foods, before they have had adequate energy and nutrient intake.
To ensure your baby gets the nutrition they need, offer plenty of small, age appropriate meals throughout the day, and offer lower fibre grain foods such as white or wholemeal bread and rice.
Be careful with high dietary fibre foods, as not only are they filling but they can impair nutrient absorption. It is best to avoid heavy grain breads, bran cereals and remove the fibrous strings from fruits and vegetables.
Protein requirements for infants are high due to the rapid growth and development they undergo. Offer your baby a variety of protein rich foods every day to ensure their needs are being met.
Good sources of vegetarian protein for infants include:
- Milk products such as full-fat yoghurt and cheese
- Beans, chickpeas, lentils and soy products, and foods made from them such as hummus and tofu. Ensure these foods are modified into an age appropriate texture before feeding and do not contain added salt.
- Seeds and nuts – offer ground or as a smooth thinly spread butter for children under 5 years to reduce choking risk.
Iron is needed for carrying oxygen in our blood, our muscles and brain, energy production and strengthening our immune system.
There are two forms of iron:
- Haem iron - present in meat, poultry and fish. Haem iron is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron from plant foods.
- Non-haem iron - present mainly in plant foods. Including vitamin C containing foods in the same meal will help baby absorb non-haem iron. Vitamin C rich foods include tomato, capsicum, citrus fruits, kiwifruit and berries.
Sources of iron in a vegetarian diet include:
- Breast milk or infant formula
- Legumes – lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu
- Seeds and nuts – ground or as a smooth nut butter
- Iron fortified baby cereals (e.g. Farex rice cereal, great as a first food)
- Leafy green vegetables – kale, broccoli, spinach, silverbeet
Some babies may still not get enough iron from food. Signs of iron deficiency are developmental and behavioral problems, reduced immunity and tiredness. Always see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal products such as meat, fish, milk and eggs. It is essential for producing healthy red blood cells and for neurological functions.
Foods that may be fortified with vitamin B12 include:
- Soy products e.g. yoghurt, cheese
- Vegetarian meat alternatives (check salt suitability for babies)
Always check the packaging label as not all these products will be fortified.
Babies born to vegan mothers can have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Both mother and baby are likely to need supplementation as prescribed by a health professional. Vegan breastfeeding mothers must also pay careful attention to their vitamin B12 status. Contact your doctor for support.
Vitamin D helps our bones absorb calcium which strengthens them. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna (if eaten), eggs and some fortified milk and soy products and margarines.
Our bodies also make vitamin D in our skin with sun exposure, but the amount of sun exposure required to meet an infant’s vitamin D requirements is unsafe for their sensitive skin. Adequate vitamin D intake from diet alone is hard to achieve. If your baby is at risk of Vitamin D deficiency, discuss supplementation with a health professional.
Adequate calcium intake is essential for development of strong bones and teeth. Milk products are an excellent source of calcium.
Sources of calcium include:
- Breast milk (or infant formula) until 12 months. Full-fat cow’s milk or fortified soy milk for toddlers.
- Milk products – full-fat yoghurt, cheese
- Almonds – ground or as a smooth paste
- Leafy green vegetables – spinach, bok choy, collard greens
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in neurological development. This is particularly important in infants. Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish and seafood (if eaten), avocado, some ground nuts and seeds (walnuts, hazelnuts, flaxseeds or linseeds) and plant oils (canola, soybean, olive, flaxseed).
Zinc is needed for wound healing and maintaining a healthy immune system. Plant food sources of zinc include legumes, seeds, nuts, tofu, wholemeal breads and cereals.
Our bodies need iodine to make thyroid hormones which control our metabolism and it is necessary for normal brain function. Sources of iodine include milk products, eggs and iodine fortified bread. Avoid iodised salt as babies don’t need salt added to their food.
What about milk?
Babies need breast milk (or infant formula) as their main milk drink until at least 12 months. Cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives do not provide the correct balance of nutrients and are not a suitable replacement.
Toddlers over 12 months old can be offered full-fat cow’s milk or soy milk fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D as a drink. Soy milk is higher in protein and fat than other plant-based milk alternatives. Limit milk to no more than 500mL (2 cups) per day and encourage your toddler to begin drinking milk from a cup rather than a bottle.
A note about legumes
If you choose to buy dried legumes, make sure you soak them before cooking as this helps reduce phytates, a compound that can interfere with iron, zinc and calcium absorption.
Canned legumes are an easy alternative, but check the labels to ensure you are choosing varieties with no added salt. Drain and rinse them before using.