Infant Diet

Weaning Vegetarian Babies

Taking the first steps in bringing your child up as a vegetarian isn't difficult. Remember that the nutritional requirements of a small baby are high, needing more protein, calcium and most other nutrients than at any other time of life. It is now widely recognized, even by the British Medical Association, that a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients needed for growing infants.

Bringing up your child as a vegetarian, you will want to get them used to the vegetarian food groups: cereals, beans, nuts and seeds, dairy and soya produce, fruit and vegetables. Your baby may reject stronger-tasting foods, such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage at six months but may like them several months later.

It is quite safe to bring up your baby as a vegan, with no animal foods at all, as long as you make sure that plenty of nutrient-rich foods are included. Vegan babies need good sources of calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D and protein.

Weaning is a gradual process that begins when you start to replace milk with solid foods. Infants should not be given solid foods before the age of four months except on the advise of a health professional. A mixed diet should be offered by the age of six months, at which stage babies need a source of iron in their diet as breast or formula milk can no longer provide enough. Especially if there is a family history of allergies, when you begin weaning your baby, introduce one food at a time and leave a few days between each new food. This way, you will be able to tell if your baby is allergic or sensitive to any particular food.

Stages of Weaning

 Before 6 months

Before the age of four months babies can’t properly digest any foods other than breast or formula milk, which remains by far the most important source of nutrition at least up to the age of six months. Babies who are not being exclusively breastfed should however be introduced to solids before the age of six months, and breastfed babies can be, particularly if they seem hungry after their breast feed.

Start by introducing one teaspoon of pureed fruit or baby rice mixed with breast or formula milk after a milk feed or in the middle if this works best for your baby. Take care that the food is adequately cooled. The nutrition of the food is not so important at this stage as milk still supplies all the baby's needs. Just one solid feed a day should be enough for most babies.

Other foods to try initially are:

• Puréed vegetables, such as potatoes, carrot or courgette

• Puréed fruit, such as banana, cooked apple or pear

• Baby rice, corn meal, sago or millet can all be given as a thin porridge.

As the weeks go on milk remains the most important food in your baby's diet, but you can gradually increase the number of times solid food is given from once to twice a day. Try mashed lentils with some added vegetable oil and a wider variety of fruit and vegetables such as avocado and green vegetables.

Do not give wheat, oats, milk, nuts, eggs or citrus fruit before the age of six months.

6-8 months

Most babies will by now eat solids although milk is a large part in their diets. Solid foods now provide an important source of iron. Most babies will be having solids three times a day. From six months you can start to introduce wheat and oat-based cereal such as bread and porridge. You can purée or sieve family foods to give variety, as long as they do not contain added salt.

Try introducing tofu, smooth nut butter, and mashed beans. Dairy foods (cow's milk, yoghurt and cheese) should not be introduced before six months because of the risk of intolerance. Free-range eggs can be given after six months, as long as they are hard-boiled. Some experts recommend avoiding all dairy products and eggs until 12 months.

8-12 months

Your baby will gradually be able to cope with lumpier foods. Foods from the family table can be given as long as they do not contain salt. Well cooked and mashed peas and beans can be introduced at around 8 to 12 months. They are difficult to digest and so can cause problems if introduced earlier. Avoid sweet biscuits and rusks. Try introducing pieces of peeled apple, raw carrot or crusts of bread. When your baby is able to chew pieces of fruit, sandwiches and toast can become normal everyday foods. By the age of 12 months your baby should be enjoying three meals a day.

Many companies produce baby foods suitable for vegetarians but it's quick and easy to prepare your own food for your baby. If you use shop bought food, always check the ingredients label and look out for The Vegetarian Society's seedling symbol to be absolutely sure that it is totally vegetarian.

Important Nutrients

Iron

This is an important nutrient during weaning, as milk is a very poor source of iron. Babies are born with their own store of iron but this will be depleted by six months. Although iron is less easily absorbed from non-animal sources, there are plenty of good vegetable sources.

Iron-rich foods suitable for babies after six months include: prune-juice, puréed apricots, molasses, refined lentils, cereals, well mashed beans and green vegetables. avoid cereals that are very high in fibre as these may inhibit iron absorption.

Vitamin C aids absorption of iron from plant foods and so it helps to give sources of these nutrients together. Vitamin C is found in frozen, fresh or juiced fruit and vegetables.

Calcium

Breast or formula milk contains all the calcium your baby needs initially. Good sources of calcium for the later weaning stages include cow's and fortified soya milk, cheese, green vegetables, wholemeal bread, beans, lentils, ground almonds, sesame paste and tofu.

Protein

Because babies are growing rapidly they require more protein than adults compared to their body weight. Breast or formula milk will provide the major source of protein for the first eight months. Proteins must be balanced in order to get the right balance of amino acids. Combinations of foods such as a cereal with beans or lentils, cereal with nuts or seeds or milk on its own will provide the right balance of protein.

Energy

Babies between the age of 6 and 12 months require 700 to 1000 calories a day, so they need concentrated sources of energy. Babies and young children do not have the capacity to eat large quantities of food and so they need small and frequent meals. Their diet should not contain too many foods that are bulky or watery. Make sure your baby has some concentrated energy foods like lentils with vegetable oil, avocado, cheese or smooth nut butter. Sugar is not a good source of energy for babies.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms and is found mostly in animal foods. Very young babies will get all the vitamin B12 they need from formula or breast milk. Later, vegetarian babies should obtain enough of this vitamin from dairy products and eggs. Vegan babies will need vitamin B12 from fortified foods such as some soya milks, low salt yeast extract or veggie burgers.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is found in dairy products, eggs and fortified foods like margarine and some breakfast cereals, and can be made by the action of sunlight on the skin. It is found exclusively in animal foods so vegan babies may need a vitamin D supplement. Breast or formula milk should provide all the vitamin D needed initially.

Fibre

A diet too high in fibre will fill up a child before their nutritional needs have been met and can interfere with absorption of minerals, such as zinc, iron and calcium, so refined bran must not be added to a young child's diet. If you think your baby is constipated give extra fluid such as water or diluted fruit juices.

Milk

Babies under two should not be given semi-skimmed milk and children under five should not be given skimmed milk because skimmed milk lacks the fat soluble vitamins A and D and young children need the energy from fat. Soya milks should be specially formulated for babies if they are used instead of breast milk and should be fortified if used as an alternative to cow's milk for babies and young children.

Salt and Sugar

These should be avoided in the diet of babies and young children. A baby's kidneys are not mature enough to cope with too much salt, and sugary foods and drinks are a prime cause of tooth decay. Sugar gives calories without any associated vitamins or minerals. In addition, a baby who is encouraged to develop a sweet tooth may have problems with obesity in later life.

Nuts

Whole or chopped nuts and seeds are not suitable for children under five because of the danger of choking, but they can be used if finely ground, for example in cooking or smooth nut spread. However many experts suggest avoiding nut products altogether in a small child’s diet due to the risk of allergies developing. If there is a history of allergies in a family it is certainly best to avoid any nuts, especially peanuts, until at least three years. The pregnant or breastfeeding mother should also avoid peanuts if there is a history of allergies in the family.

Quorn and textured vegetable protein

Quorn products are a useful addition to the diet of young children, but it should not be relied on as the sole or major source of protein since it is relatively low in calories and high in fibre, so may satisfy a child's appetite before enough energy has been taken in.

Further Information

Even with the help of this Info Sheet and the growing scientific evidence that a vegetarian diet is a healthy option, you may experience resistance from health professionals, family or friends about bringing up your baby as a vegetarian. Contact The Vegetarian Society for help in solving any problems or answering your questions.