Babies and Cows Milk
Everyone wants to give their child the best start in life and there’s lots of conflicting advice and information to sift through. People may worry that a vegetarian or vegan diet is not healthy for babies but that does not have to be true. Because babies are reliant on milk for the first year of their lives, and most milk comes from cows, it can be hard to find alternatives for vegan babies, but not impossible.
Breast FeedFor the first several months of a baby’s life, its diet consists entirely of milk. The easiest way for a vegan mum to ensure their baby is following a vegan diet, is to breast feed. However, vitamin B12 and vitamin D are both important to the developing infant and a vegan mother’s milk will be low in both these nutrients.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for the baby’s developing nervous system. Some vegan mums will take a supplement to ensure they pass it along to the baby. It is also possible to consume B12 in yeast extract and fortified breakfast cereals. Many non-dairy milks, like Soya milk, are also fortified with B12 – check the carton.
Vitamin D is essential to ensure proper calcium deposits in the bone structure. It is produced naturally in the body from exposure to sunshine. Because vitamin D is so important, and is naturally quite low in breast milk, it is recommended by the Department of Health that all children between six months and five years receive vitamin drops of A, C and D, no matter whether their diet contains meat or not.
There is a fatty acid mostly found in animal products called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is important for the development of the eye and brain. Vegans can make the fatty acid in their bodies from another source called alpha-linolenic acid, by making sure there is rapeseed oil, flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed in their diet. To help babies absorb the DHA you should also reduce the use of corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil and hydrogenated fats which interfere with DHA production.
Formula MilkFor babies who are not breast fed, formula is the alternative. Cow’s milk is not recommended for any baby until they are a year old, however most formula milks are made from cows’ milk derivatives. It may be the case that you decide in the interests of ensuring your baby gets the right amounts of nutrients it needs, that for the first year of his or her life, you allow them to drink regular formula milk. All formula milks are very carefully made to ensure they have exactly the right amounts of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals a baby needs and if you are concerned about the welfare of cattle, there are organic formula milks available.
Vegan BabyIf you are determined that your baby should be a vegan from birth (and perhaps a severe milk allergy in the family would suggest your baby might not thrive on a cow’s milk derived formula) there are Soya based formula milks available. Only one Soya milk formula is truly vegan, and that is Farley’s Soya Formula made by Heinz. It is strongly advised you seek the advice of a GP, midwife or other health professional before making the decision to keep your baby on a strictly vegan diet. Soya milk formula is not recommended for babies aged less than six months. If there is a concern about an allergy to cows milk, it is possible to get specially adapted formula milks which are less likely to trigger an intolerance and there is no guarantee that a baby who is allergic to cows’ milk will not also be intolerant of Soya milk.
Soya MilkThere are some other issues with the use of Soya milk. The first is it is quite sweet; therefore you should start brushing your baby’s teeth if they are drinking it. Another concern is the presence of phytoestrogens in Soya milk. These are chemicals that occur naturally in plants and mimic the female hormone oestrogen. Some experts have theorised that large amounts of them in a baby’s diet may affect their hormonal development. Until concrete evidence can be provided one way or the other, the recommendation of the Food Standards Agency is that Soya milk formula should be avoided in babies under 12 months, apart from in exceptional circumstances.
After their first birthday, children can be a bit more flexible with their diets. Formula is no longer strictly required and they can drink cows’ milk. For the vegan baby the choice of milk expands and they can drink other non-dairy milks, however they should always be fortified to ensure the child is still receiving the right amount of vitamins and minerals.
It can be a hard decision to leave cows milk out of your baby’s diet, but not necessarily an unhealthy one. If you’re unable to breast-feed, talk to your GP or paediatrician before deciding to keep your baby vegan.