In general, vegetarian diets can be healthful for children as long as their nutritional needs are met. However, Manisha Panchal, M.D., a pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, believes the question becomes more complicated when considering a vegan diet for a young child or infant.
Vegan diets do not use any animal products, including eggs or dairy, and this poses some unique risks for babies and toddlers because of their extremely rapid growth rate, Dr. Panchal says.
“Infants and young children simply require more protein, calcium and vitamins D and B12 than adults,” she says. “These nutrients are abundant in milk and milk products, which vegan diets do not allow.”
For most of the first year, you can ensure a healthful vegan diet for your newborn either by breastfeeding or by offering a soy-based infant formula approved by your pediatrician. Sometimes vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron supplements are given during the first year, but be sure to ask your pediatrician.
After your baby turns 1, it is more difficult to maintain proper nutrition on a vegan diet.
“Babies and toddlers need diets high in fat and protein and low in fiber, the exact opposite of many vegan diets,” Dr. Panchal says. “You will need to make sure your baby gets foods like cooked beans, lentils, tofu, avocados, soy yogurt and nuts.”
Because finicky toddlers may resist these restrictions, some parents decide to supplement their children’s diets with eggs and milk from organic farms that follow high standards for the humane treatment of animals.
“The rules for adult nutrition can’t directly be applied to a baby or toddler,” Dr. Panchal says. “If you feel strongly about your child being on a vegan diet, be sure to find a pediatrician and nutritionist willing to advise you. Otherwise, it is very likely your baby or child will have nutritional deficits.”