by Catherine Shortall, Registered Paediatric Dietitian.

We are all aware of the rising popularity of plant based eating and reducing animal product consumption. I’ve made an active effort to reduce my consumption of red meat and animal products and increase plant based alternatives.  I really enjoy the taste of many (not all!) the different plant based meal options, I’ve definitely increased the variety in my diet and tried new recipes. So when I became pregnant, I started to think about whether I would wean my baby on to a vegetarian diet…below I have put together some of my thoughts. I have put a more detail presentation together detail in our Plant Based Weaning Webinar, which you can access here.

What do I mean when I say vegetarian? 

A vegetarian diet excludes animal products such as meat and fish. Depending on the individual, animal based products such as eggs, milk and cheese may also be excluded. There are different classifications depending on what foods are included including, lacto ovo-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian and  lacto- vegetarian. Others may be pescetarian – exclude meat but consume fish, I fall in this category.

There are lots of reasons for individuals and families to follow a vegetarian or fully vegan diet including personal health reasons or health beliefs, environmental, animal welfare or religious/cultural factors.

There has been a general push to increase the range and variety of foods consumed in the Western diet to increase plant sources and reduce the reliance on animal products due to known health benefits as well as to support the environment. If parents follow a plant based diet, it makes sense that they would like to raise children with a similar way of eating – at the very least to avoid cooking multiple meals daily, none of us need that! 

is it safe or appropriate for infants to be weaned on to a vegetarian diet? 

Naturally we want to balance our own principles and beliefs with the overall health and appropriate development of our child. Guidelines suggest that particular care should be taken to ensure nutritional adequacy of any babies being weaned onto a vegetarian diet. If a balanced range of foods to meet nutritional needs is provided, it can be nutritionally adequate. However, if care is not taken to provide appropriate sources of nutrients that may be limited in a vegetarian diet, there is a risk of nutritional deficiencies. So it can be done safely, but needs to be thought through carefully and benefits from professional support of a Paediatric Dietitian.

Depending on how restricted the diet is and what exact animal based foods are being or not being provided there may be challenges to achieving an infants requirements for a range of nutrients including protein, calcium, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12, B2, D, A and omega 3 fats (DHA).

From about 6 months of age, a baby needs more than formula or breastmilk to meet their nutritional requirements particularly for iron. 

There are plenty of plant based sources of these nutrients that can be offered. It is really important that natural sources or fortified alternatives to animal sources of these nutrients are offered to ensure the baby is getting adequate nutrition to support growth and development. Nutritional adequacy is one of the most important factors in growth and development in a child’s first 2 years of life. 

For breastfeeding parents on a plant based or vegetarian style of eating, it is also important to ensure they are achieving nutritional requirements themselves as well.

So what foods need to be considered? 

This will depend on which foods are not being consumed. You may also need to consider the overall fibre and energy (calorie) content of foods provided. Plant based diets are naturally higher in fibre, and low in calories, which can be challenging for little one’s.

Plant based diets can be lower in sources of fat. Which might seem beneficial for some adults or even older children however, fat is an important energy and fat soluble vitamin source for babies, so this needs to be replaced with non animal fat alternatives. It’s also worth considering if there is any risk of allergy in the family. We know that delaying the introduction of potential allergens can actually lead to increased risk of an allergy. So if you don’t plan to provide fish or shellfish to your baby, do you need to consider offering this food a couple of times to avoid an allergy? This may be worth discussing with a registered dietitian to help your individual situation. 

Breastmilk or formula should remain the main drink until over 12 months of age. 

The list below shows some more nutrients that need to be considered before deciding to raise your child on a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Protein, Calcium, Iron, Zinc, Vitamin B12, Vitamin B2, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Omega 3 fats.

With careful planning and support from registered healthcare professionals (such as ourselves at weaning.ie), it is possible to provide a balanced vegetarian weaning diet for a healthy baby. If there are other health conditions or growth concerns, it may be best to discuss your health aims and priorities with your GP, medical team or a registered paediatric Dietitian. 

If  you would like more specific support, please check our our Plant Based Weaning Webinar or consider a 1:1 consultation.

Working with us is redeemable from health insurance, usually 30 – 75%, depending on your policy.

References: 

ESPGHAN 2017 Complementary Feeding paper

First Steps Nutrition Nov 2023

Clinical Paediatrics book

Feed your child well Book