by Audrey Nickel
Iíll never forget the reaction of a friend when she first learned that I was
pregnant. After a hug and congratulations, she said, "of course youíre going to
give up the vegetarian thing now, right? You have your baby to think about!" She
was dumbfounded when I told her, "I am thinking about my baby, which is why I
wouldnít even consider eating meat now!"
Then I went for the prenatal class required by my HMO. They showed us a film
about good nutrition during pregnancy, which included the admonishment to drink
at least a quart of milk a day (Iíd have a hard time drinking a quart of
vanilla-flavored soy milk a day...forget the moo juice!).
Reading baby books by such notables as Dr. Spock, I saw all kinds of warnings
against raising children vegan (most allowed that an ovo-lacto diet "could be
OK, if the parent is very careful about nutrition"). All of this conflicted with
what I saw around me...healthy and thriving vegetarian and vegan kids, whose
parents were not food chemists or dieticians. Clearly the medical profession was
even farther behind the times than I had thought!
The fact is that a good vegan diet is just about ideal for children. It is
much more varied than the standard American diet, and doesnít carry with it the
heavy burden of dairy allergies, high cholesterol, and sensitivity to infection
that plague most American kids. Nor does it carry the social stigma it once
did...alternative diets are seen as "cool" by a lot of young children, who are
intrigued by differences. The time has come for the vegan child!
Here are answers for some of the most common concerns about vegan pregnancies
and vegan kids:
Forget the quart of milk a day. You do need extra calcium
when youíre pregnant, as you are helping your baby build bones, but there are
plenty of other sources available, including calcium-fortified soy milk,
calcium-fortified orange juice (an excellent source, as OJ is low in protein,
which inhibits calcium uptake), leafy green veggies (also a good source of folic
acid), tofu precipitated with calcium carbonate (read the label) and sesame
seeds (how about some tahini sauce on that steamed broccoli?).
You will need more protein than you probably normally consume (or would
consider wise), both to help your baby build muscle tissue and to prevent
toxemia during the latter stages of your pregnancy. You will also need to be
sure you are getting enough calories, as vegan diets tend to be relatively
lo-cal and high-bulk, and that you are consuming enough fat to make sure that
your babyís neurological system gets off to the right start. Just be sure that
you include enough vegan high-protein sources (which also tend to be higher in
calories and fats than many vegan staples), such as tofu, tempeh and other soy
products; nuts and nut butters; and avocados. As your pregnancy progresses and
the baby starts crowding your stomach, you may find it hard to eat all the
calories that you need; the answer is frequent, smaller meals of fairly
B-12 is a factor, both during pregnancy and nursing. Most vegans who have
ever eaten animal products store plenty of this micronutrient for their own
bodyís use (and some is also manufactured in the mouth and intestine), but
stored B-12 is not available to your baby, either in the womb or through your
breastmilk. B-12 is vital for proper neurological development, so if you eat no
animal products, you should either consider a supplement, or bolster your diet
with B-12 fortified foods, such as fortified breakfast cereals and Red Star
T6635 nutritional yeast. (See Valerie Copeland's article on B-12 in the last
issue of the Grapevine --Dilip)
Feeding Your Vegan Baby
Well, you already know the answer for the
first four to six months, right? Breastmilk is the ideal food for your new baby,
and should be fed exclusively for at least the first four to six months. Even
once your child is eating solid foods, your breastmilk should remain a component
of her/his diet for as long as you and the child are willing (I nursed Johanna
for 3 1/2 years).
If for some reason you canít nurse, soy formulas can be a good alternative.
Do not use regular soy milk or rice milk as an infant formula; it is difficult
for an infant to digest, and doesnít contain all of the necessary nutrients
(neither does cowís milk, by the way). If your baby is allergic to soy (itís a
fairly common allergy), there are alternative formulas available - speak to your
doctor or midwife.
The issue of when to start solids is based, in large part, on your baby. You
should wait until she/he is at least four months old, to avoid allergy and
digestive problems. Some professionals advise waiting until a child is six
months or older. Your baby is your best guide - if he/she is still hungry after
nursing, or is beginning to reach with interest toward your food, itís probably
time to try a little solid food. Some kids need it as early as four months,
while some arenít interested until theyíre nearly a year old! So long as baby is
healthy and growing well, let him/her tell you what is needed - babies are
remarkably savvy when it comes to nutrition!
What to feed first? Most experts recommend rice or oatmeal cereals, if your
baby likes them. Pureed fresh cooked veggies and pureed fruits are also a great
start. For what itís worth, one of Johannaís first foods was mashed avocado!
Some experts advise offering veggies before fruits, so your child doesnít become
so enamored of sweet fruit taste that he/she rejects veggies (however, Iíve
talked with a lot of parents who offered fruit first, and none of them has
indicated problems with veggie rejection).
Here are some guidelines.
- Feed new foods alone at first, so you can determine if your child is
allergic to them.
- As soon as baby is eating a variety of foods, be sure to offer a variety
at each meal.
- Avoid honey and other liquid sweeteners until your child is at least a
year old (itís not a bad idea to avoid altogether sweets other than fruit, but
honey, corn syrup, rice syrup and the like can be dangerous for young
- Donít use nut or seed butters unless you thin them with breastmilk,
formula or water, as your baby can easily choke on them.
- Have fun! Itís tremendously exciting to watch your child discover new
foods! Donít worry too much about nutrition from early foods so long as youíre
still nursing, as your breastmilk provides all the nutrition that your baby
Older Kids/Peer Pressure
When your child ventures out into the big
world, she/he is going to encounter meat eaters...lots of them. Itís inevitable,
even if you homeschool and trash the television, sooner or later, your kid is
going to encounter another kid with a bologna sandwich or a hot dog. Itís hard
for most parents to admit, but you really donít have a lot of control over your
childís attitude. Some children will look at meat eaters with disdain (Jo is one
of those) and others will be curious, wanting to try what the other kids have.
Some parents allow their young kids to experiment; others prefer to just say
no. I feel strongly enough about the health and moral implications of
meat eating that I have no problem saying no, which is probably one reason
Johanna looks at meat eaters with pity rather than curiosity.
Peer pressure seems to be less of a problem than it once was. Among older
kids, vegetarianism is cool. Younger kids are so used to meeting other
kids with allergies or religious/cultural restrictions (a result of the
shrinking global community), that they usually handle veggie kids in their midst
without much comment.
Family and Teachers
Teachers and other adults in charge of
children are usually willing to go along with your instructions, but they may be
unclear about exactly what "vegan" or "vegetarian" means. The key is to be both
firm and explicit. Make sure that family knows that little Jane/Johnnie is never
to be offered meat, dairy, or any other food that you restrict. Offer to pack
lunch or snacks. If they are concerned about the child's health, get your doctor
to talk to them or write a letter. Particularly for family members, if they
sabotage your childís diet, you may have to tell them that, until they get their
act together, they may not see your child unless you are there too.
If your child goes to school or day care, or participates in other group
activities where you will not be present, you should indicate on his/her medical
form exactly what he/she may not eat. The medical form lends authority; with
allergies on the rise, school officials tend to pay a great deal of attention to
medical recommendations. Itís also important that you talk to your childís care
giver personally and emphasize that your child is a vegetarian/vegan.
Birthday parties can be a problem for the vegan child. If your child is
invited to a party, you need to talk to the host beforehand. You may decide that
an occasional lapse, on a special occasion, is OK. If not, you will need to
arrange to send an alternative treat with your child.
Generally, if you offer a varied diet at home
and limit empty foods, such as sweets, your child will naturally select foods
that will help him/her grow. An occasional empty food, such as a few pieces of
Halloween candy or a slice of birthday cake, wonít do much harm nutritionally if
the basic diet is sound. If your child is growing well, is active and healthy,
and eats a variety of foods, he/sheís probably in good shape nutritionally.
Three caveats for vegan parents: 1) Your child needs to get enough calories.
Offer concentrated foods, such as nut and seed butters (thinned or spread thinly
on bread, never straight!), avocados, bread, pasta, potatoes, bananas, yams,
tofu and other soy products, etc. 2) You need to make sure your young child gets
sufficient fat during the first two years (the above recommendations should take
care of that too), for proper neurological development. 3) You need to make a
source of B-12 available in the diet, either in the form of a supplement, or in
fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast and certain soy
milks. Our need for B-12 is small, but the results of skimping on this
micronutrient during childhood can be devastating.
Have fun, and happy parenting!
Many of the following books are available
through Vegetarian Times at (800)793-9161; the Vegetarian Resource Group
(VRG) at (410) 366-8343 or www.vrg.org/catalog/order.htm;
or the North American Vegetarian Society (NAVS), P.O. Box 72, Dolgeville, NY
VT, NAVS Pregnancy, Children and the Vegan Diet,
Michael Klaper, MD (nutrition for pregnant and nursing women, and babies to 18
NAVS The Experience of Childbirth, Sheila Kitzinger (A vegetarian
NAVS Feeding Vegan Babies, Freya Dinshah
VT Vegetarian Baby, Sharon Yntema
VT Vegetarian Children, Sharon Yntema The Vegetarian Mother Baby
Book, Rose Elliot The Complete Guide and Cookbook for Raising Your Child
as a Vegetarian, Michael and Nina Shandler
NAVS Raising Your Child Naturally, Joy Gross (benefits of a vegetarian
NAVS Good Food Today, Great Kids Tomorrow (video), Jay Gordon, MD
(round-table discussion with parents about children and food) Pretend Soup
and other Real Recipes, Mollie Katzen (fun recipes for children)
VT Foods from Mother Earth (easy vegetarian recipes with common
ingredients that children can make)
VRG Leprechaun Cake and Other Tales, Vonnie Winslow Crist and Debra
Wasserman (story-cookbook about friendship, caring, and healthy cooking/eating;
VRG I Love Animals & Broccoli Activity Book, VRG (puzzles, games,
VRG Soup to Nuts Coloring Book, VRG (detailed drawings and poems of
natural vegetarian friendly foods for children 3-8)
VT A Teen's Guide to Going Vegetarian
NAVS NAVS has a good collection of books for older children (see
such as Dr. Nigel Burroughs' Nature's Chicken: The Story of Today's Chicken
Farms, Radha Vignola's Victor, the Vegetarian books, Roberta
Kalechofsky's A Boy, A Chicken, & the Lion of Judah: How Ari Became a
Vegetarian, as well as books by Zoe Weil and Ingrid Newkirk.
A great web resource is VRG's collection on
Raising a Vegetarian Family (www.vrg.org/family/)
The Vegetarian Society of the UK has excellent fact sheets on many topics,
including pregnancy (http://www.veg.org.uk/Info/preg.html)
and nutrition for children (http://www.vegsoc.org/info/childre1.html)
gives a good account of one family's perspective on raising their child
VegSource (http://www.vegsource.com/), a hangout for
Audrey, has many discussion boards, including ones on Parenting,
Health and Veggie Kids. It also has links to Dr. Klaper's and Dr.
Attwood's (a pediatrician who regularly responds to queries on the Health
discussion board) sites.
Some Other Resources
TVS designed a 2-page pamphlet last year
called "Teenagers and Vegetarianism"; contact us for a copy.
The September 1997 issue of Vegetarian Times has an article
"Worry-Free Pregnancy" (pgs. 80-87), and the July 1994 issue has a good article
"Raising Healthy Veg Kids" (pgs. 58-65).
VRG VRG's Vegetarian Journal had three issues this year focusing on
issues of raising children vegetarian. Highly recommended!