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 concentrated foods.
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.
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 13329, (518)568-7970, email@example.com
VT, NAVS Pregnancy, Children and the Vegan Diet, Michael Klaper, MD (nutrition for pregnant and nursing women, and babies to 18 months)
NAVS The Experience of Childbirth, Sheila Kitzinger (A vegetarian midwife's perspective)
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 diet)
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; www.vrg.org/catalog/leprechaun.htm)
VRG I Love Animals & Broccoli Activity Book, VRG (puzzles, games, and recipes)
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 www.navs-online.org/literature.html) 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)
www.veg.on.ca/newsletr/mayjun95/baby.html gives a good account of one family's perspective on raising their child vegetarian
VegSource (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!