Vegan pregnancy and raising vegan kids
Vegan Pregnancy and your under 5s
A well-balanced vegan diet includes a wide variety of whole-grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
For more comprehensive information on optimal plant-based nutrition, making the transition to plant-based meals, key nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding and how and what to feed vegan kids we recommend the book Vegan for Life by dieticians and long-time vegans Jack Norris and Virginia Messina.
The body has different nutritional needs during pregnancy. The most important differences are the need for protein, omega fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, vitamin D and folic acid. The energy requirement is also slightly increased during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, it is necessary for all expectant mothers to take Vitamin D and folic acid supplements Furthermore, with a plant-based diet extra attention must be paid to taking sufficient protein, iron and calcium, zinc, vitamins B1 and B2. Vitamin B12 must be taken daily through fortified products or as a supplement. Sufficient weight gain from the mother is a good indication for normal growth of the baby.
Although sufficient Vitamin A is important during pregnancy, it can be harmful to the unborn baby in excessive amounts. Fortunately, this will not be a problem with a plant-based diet as the warnings mainly apply to the use of animal products (especially liver) and supplements. So be careful with taking vitamin A during pregnancy- your intake should not exceed 3000 micrograms per day.
During pregnancy, and especially with excessive vomiting, the need for vitamins B1 and vitamin B2 is increased. They are involved in releasing energy from food and are found in vegetables, fruit and grain products (bread). Vitamins B1 and B2 are lost with too much exposure to sunlight or heat, and are soluble in water. So do not cut vegetables and fruit too small, eat them raw or cooked in water.
Make sure you get enough calcium for strong bones for the baby. Eat plenty of green vegetables, nuts, sesame seeds and legumes.
Vitamin D ensures, among other things, that calcium can be stored in the bones. A lot of vitamin D is needed for the unborn child, since all bones still have to be formed. As a result, the vitamin D requirement during pregnancy is too great to be met by diet. It is therefore recommended to take 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day and get a good dose of natural sunlight each day.
Plant-based foods can provide adequate protein, but the effect of a deficiency is much greater for the unborn baby than for an adult. That is why it is smart to pay extra attention to protein intake for certainty. Eat plenty of legumes, nuts, seeds, beans, tofu, tempeh, mushrooms and cereal products.
Eat enough, but food for two is not necessary. Diets during pregnancy are strongly discouraged, because a low-calorie diet cannot meet the needs of you and the child. If you think that you will gain too much or too little, discuss this with the midwife or doctor.
Folic acid plays an important role in the first phase of baby’s growth. Therefore, from the moment you want to become pregnant, take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day. This reduces the chance of spina bifida with your future baby. It is necessary to continue to take folic acid at least up to and including the 8th week of pregnancy. After that extra folic acid is not necessary, but it won’t hurt.
All pregnant women must take iron supplements in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy, because the need for this is so great that it cannot be obtained sufficiently through the diet. A little vitamin C with every meal (a piece of fruit, vegetables or lemon juice with a dressing) helps to absorb the iron from the food better, but iron is still needed.
These fatty acids are involved in the development of the nervous system, and are therefore especially important during pregnancy. Omega fatty acids are contained in various vegetable oils, nuts and seeds or can be supplemented. Chia seeds or linseed powder are a great source.
Zinc is found in beans, nuts, seeds, whole-grain products and vegetables. Swallowing extra zinc is necessary when taking iron pills because they prevent the absorption of zinc.
From the above nutrients, supplements can be used where necessary. There are also prenatal supplements, specially formulated for pregnant women. These offer a good basis for all minerals and vitamins that are needed during pregnancy. An example of such a supplement is Pregnavit, available in many health food stores and chemists.
Breast Feeding Mums of 0 – 6 mths
Breast milk is the ideal and preferred food source for babes under 6 months. Formula milk is anther option. There is now vegan formula milk available on the New Zealand market, called Sprout. Sprout Organic’s infant formula is made with the goodness of organic plants which are a natural source of proteins and antioxidants. Sprout’s clean and organic ingredients are formulated to support the health of your little one from birth to 12 months of age.
Sprout is available here >
A formula close to being vegan is Karicare dairy free soy milk infant formula. This contains vitamin D3, probably sourced from eggs.
Breastfeeding requires extra protein and zinc, so make sure that your meals contain good sources, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and quinoa. Extra calcium is also required for breast feeding mums. Many plant milks are fortified with calcium. Nuts, tofu and blackstrap molasses are all good sources of calcium.
Breast feeding vegan mums can ensure they are getting what they need by eating nutrient-dense food -see the menu list below for a range of plant-based meal options.
Sample menu for breast-feeding moms
It’s a good idea to get a regular blood test done (every 6 months or so) to make sure you’re getting enough of what you need – your local nurse or GP can write a referral for you
scrambled tofu cooked in canola oil
whole-wheat toast with margarine
cup of calcium-fortified orange juice
bran muffin with marmite/almond butter
bunch of grapes
whole-grain crackers with almond butter
cup of steamed collards (broccoli, spinach, red cabbage)
green salad with dressing
veggie burger in a whole-wheat
roll with slice of tomato
and lettuce and vegan mayonnaise
With frozen berries, banana,
soy milk, 1 tsp ground
flaxseed, cup of oats, walnuts,
pumpkin seeds, almonds, bunch kale/spinach.
6 months - 1 year
Babies and young children on a vegan diet can get the energy and most of the nutrients they need to grow and develop from a well-planned varied and balanced diet. But they might need specific supplements (such as vitamin B12) in addition to the usual vitamin supplements recommended for all babies. Talk to a health professional for advice.
You can refer the Resources Section for information from the UK’s NHS at the end of this page to know more about your baby’s first solid foods, food allergies in babies and food to avoid giving babies.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal foods, because these have generally been fortified. We used to get our B12 from the dirt in soil but our vegetables are too sanitised for this to be the case now.
If your baby or child has a vegan diet they’ll need to take a supplement that contains vitamin B12 or eat foods fortified with B12, just as you do.
Foods that may be fortified with vitamin B12 include:
- breakfast cereals
- yoghurts and milk alternatives, such as soya, oat, coconut and almond drinks
Always check the labels as not all these products are fortified, especially organic versions.
Vitamin B12 can also be found in some yeast extracts, which is suitable for vegans (choose a brand with no added salt for your baby).
Iodine can be found in plant foods, such as cereals and grains, but the levels vary depending on the amount of iodine in the soil where the plants are grown. Some seaweed and kelp products contain iodine, but these are not recommended as they can provide very high amounts of iodine, which may be harmful. A supplement can provide a reliable source of iodine.
Sources of omega 3 include:
- flaxseed (linseed) oil or ground linseeds
- walnuts – give children under 5 years walnuts that have been ground up to reduce the risk of choking
- ground chia seeds and hemp seeds
Find out more about vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids
You can make sure your child gets enough iron by giving them:
- beans, chickpeas and lentils
- seeds and nuts – offer these ground or as a nut butter for children under 5 years to reduce the risk of choking
- dark green vegetables
- wholegrains like wholemeal bread and brown rice
- fortified cereals
- dried fruit, such as apricots, figs and prunes (offer these with meals, rather than as a snack between meals, to help prevent tooth decay)
You can give your child unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya, oat or almond drinks, from the age of 12 months as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Children under 5 years should not have rice drinks as a substitute for breast milk or infant formula because they may contain too much arsenic.
Other sources of calcium include:
- pulses (such as beans, lentils and chickpeas)
- almond butter
- calcium-set tofu
- dried figs
- green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and okra
Some foods are also fortified with calcium, so check the labels.
Good sources of protein from plant foods include:
- beans, chickpeas, lentils and soya products, and foods made from them, such as hummus, tofu and soya mince
- seeds and nuts – offer these ground or as a smooth butter for children under 5 years to reduce the risk of choking
If your child already has a diagnosed food allergy, or there’s a history of allergies in their immediate family (including asthma, eczema or hayfever), talk to your health visitor or GP before offering them foods containing peanuts or nuts for the first time.
Is your child getting enough calories?
Young children need a good variety of foods to provide the energy (calories) and nutrients they need to grow and develop. A vegan diet can be high in fibre. This can mean your child feels full up before they have taken in enough calories and nutrients. When it comes to starchy foods, in addition to the higher fibre wholegrain and wholemeal versions, your child should have some lower fibre foods, such as white bread and rice, until they’re 5 years old.
If you’re concerned your child is not getting enough energy, offer them higher calorie foods, such as hummus, smooth nut and seed butters or full-fat vegan yoghurt and use vegetable oils or vegan fat spreads in cooking.
The Ministry of Health recommends that all children aged 6 months to 5 years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. It’s also recommended that babies who are being breastfed are given a daily vitamin D supplement from birth, whether or not you’re taking a supplement containing vitamin D yourself. Babies who are having more than 500ml of infant formula a day do not need vitamin supplements because formula is fortified with nutrients.
Vitamin D2 is suitable for babies and children who have a vegan diet, and you can also get supplements containing vitamin D3 that comes from lichen. Your health visitor can give you advice on vitamin drops for babies and young children.
Well-planned vegan diets can meet the nutritional needs of every family member. You can give your child a great start in life by introducing them to a wide variety of plant foods, and teaching them to make compassionate choices. Children who are raised on healthful vegan diets have a reduced risk for heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and other conditions. Those who eat a plant-based diet limit foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which can contribute to heart disease.
Young children need a good variety of foods to provide the energy (calories) and nutrients they need to grow and develop. The vegan diet can be high in fibre. This can mean your child feels full up before they have taken in enough calories and nutrients. When it comes to starchy foods, in addition to the higher fibre wholegrain and wholemeal versions, your child should have some lower fibre foods, such as white bread and rice, until they’re 5 years old. If you’re concerned your child is not getting enough energy, offer them higher calorie foods, such as hummus, smooth nut and seed butters or coconut yoghurt, and use vegetable oils or vegan fat spreads in cooking.
The Ministry of Health recommends that all children aged 6 months to 5 years are given vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D every day. Your vegan child might need specific supplements (such as vitamin B12) in addition to the usual vitamin supplements recommended for all young children.
When it comes to milk, research shows that dairy products have little or no benefit for bones. A 2005 review published in Pediatrics showed that milk consumption does not improve bone integrity in children. Another study tracked the diets, physical activity, and stress fracture incidences of adolescent girls for seven years, and concluded that dairy products and calcium do not prevent stress fractures in adolescent girls.
During this period of your child’s life, you will gradually adjust their diet so that it is balanced in a similar way to your diet by the time they are five years old. Young children need meals and snacks that provide lots of nutrients for growth, but sometimes have small appetites. Here are some tips about making the most of their food:
- Lower fibre starchy foods may be useful sources of energy, such as white rice and pasta
- Quinoa contains more protein than rice, pasta or potato
- Add energy to meals and snacks by adding ground nuts* and seeds, nut* and seed butters, vegetable oil and vegan spread
- Lower fat options are not recommended
*If your child already has a diagnosed food allergy, or there’s a history of allergy in their immediate family (such as asthma, eczema or hay fever), talk to a health professional before giving them food containing peanuts for the first time.
Calcium is important for teeth and bones. Breastfeeding your child until they are at least two years old will help them to get enough. 300ml of unsweetened fortified soya milk provides a good daily intake of calcium. Plain fortified soya yoghurt and calcium-set tofu are also valuable sources. Other sources include kale, pak choi, okra, dried figs, chia seeds and almonds (ground or butter).
It’s also important to make sure that your child’s daily diet contains plenty of foods that are rich in iron. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, cashew nuts (ground or butter), ground chia seeds, ground linseed, ground hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds (ground or butter), quinoa, kale, raisins, dried figs, dried apricots and fortified breakfast cereals provide good amounts of iron. Adding vitamin C-rich food to meals helps with iron absorption. Good sources of vitamin C include pepper, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kiwi fruits, oranges, strawberries and pineapple.
Every vegan needs to obtain vitamin B12 from fortified foods or a supplement. A reliable source of iodine is also important, and a supplement is recommended. You may also wish to consider giving your child a supplement of long chain omega-3 fats from microalgae, although there is a need for research into how these supplements affect the health of vegans. Your child’s daily diet should include a good source of essential omega-3 fat, such as ground chia seeds, ground linseed, ground hemp seeds or ground walnuts.
Resources & quick links
Additional online nutritional resources.
The majority of the leading causes of death in the Western world (heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer) start in childhood. If we're serious about preventing these diseases, we need to start with our kids!