The breast milk of vegetarian mothers is just as nutritious as that of nonvegetarians. It has many of the nutrients that a baby needs, especially from age 0-6 months. Although the time to wean a baby off breast milk can vary, since breast milk is rich in nutrients, vegan mothers may wish to breastfeed for more than one year.
While nursing, make sure that you are consuming a good supply of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12, as well as other nutrients, are important for your baby and is passed on through breast milk. If you are nursing your baby and are not getting enough vitamin B12 in your own diet, talk to your child’s pediatrician about vitamin supplements. Also, breastfed infants, regardless of diet type, may need to take vitamin D supplements until they are ready to drink milk fortified with vitamin D, usually after they are older than one year.
When choosing a formula for your baby (soy formula for vegan babies), choose one that is fortified with iron. Avoid giving your baby soy milk, cow milk, or rice milk in their first year of life. These do not have adequate amounts of nutrients, protein, fat, and carbohydrates needed for newborns. From age one year on, your baby can have fortified soy milk or cow milk if they are eating solid foods.
When your baby is 6 months old, they can start eating foods with iron, such as iron-fortified cereals. A baby that is ready for solid foods should have protein-rich foods like cottage cheese, yogurt, pureed tofu, and strained beans (chickpeas, peas, lentils) in the diet. Also, if your baby is not getting enough zinc from foods, consider giving zinc supplements or foods fortified with zinc.
As children enter the toddler years, they may become finicky when it comes to what they eat. Feedings can become a challenge, but making sure they consume enough nutrients can heighten the challenge. When breastfeeding or formula-feeding stops, children need to continue receiving nutrients that breast milk and formula once provided. Getting enough calories from foods is also important for growing children. Your toddler should eat fortified cereals and foods packed with nutrients. Vitamins may be needed if your child cannot meet nutrient requirements from meals and snacks.
Going vegetarian can be beneficial for teenagers, since they may eat more of the nutritious foods, like fruits and vegetables, that are often lacking in a teen’s meal choices. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is ideal for growing teens to ensure that they are getting enough protein, iron, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, and calcium.
Being involved in your child’s meal planning at this stage in life is a good way to encourage healthy eating. The teen years are a time when identity and self-image begin to form. Stay alert as to whether your teen’s food choices or eating patterns are restrictive (avoiding calories, carbohydrates, and fats). If your teen is avoiding certain foods, this may be a sign of an eating disorder.
Also, teach your children that a healthy vegetarian diet should be balanced and nutritious. A vending machine approach—potato chips and a soda—is not a healthy vegetarian lunch. Most school cafeterias offer vegetarian options on their lunch menus. If not, talk to your child’s school administrators to see if such options can be made available. You can also team up with your child to pack healthy lunches that can be taken to school.