Vegetarian parents often hope to introduce a vegetarian diet to their little one which is completely understandable and makes sense in a vegetarian household. A vegetarian diet just takes a little more care and planning to ensure your baby is getting the variety of food and right balance of essential nutrients and energy in a vegetarian diet.
A poorly planned vegetarian diet can be low in protein, iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc which are also some of the most important nutrients for your baby's healthy development. It’s a good idea to build an understanding of which non-meat food sources are rich in these nutrients and ensure your baby is offered these at meals.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which includes dairy milk products and eggs as well as plant based foods, is a better choice for a baby than a purely plant based vegan diet. Vegan diets are generally not recommended for babies as they lack essential nutrients in the correct balance and can be too high in fibre. A vegan diet for a young child requires close involvement of a dietitian or qualified health professional to ensure it is nutritionally adequate, as at the very least, it may require vitamin B12 supplementation.
If you are looking at a vegetarian diet for your baby, it is also a good idea to consult your doctor, child health nurse or dietitian to make sure you have all the right information.
Below is some information to help you understand a vegetarian diet:
The food journey
Breast milk is the perfect food for your baby. Breast milk (or infant formula) is all baby needs for around the first 6 months. A vegetarian diet may be introduced in conjunction with breast milk once baby is ready to start solids.
Gradually introduce foods in an appropriate texture to your baby, starting with cooked puréed vegetables, fruit and iron rich foods. During the first year of life introduce a variety of foods from the five food groups to provide new flavours, energy and essential nutrients.
Always offer food in a soft texture that is safe and appropriate for your baby’s developmental stage. Modify foods to a suitable texture and shape by cooking or chopping to reduce the choking risk e.g. offer thinly spread smooth nut butters and cooked mashed legumes.
Young children require energy and nutrient dense foods to fuel their rapid growth and development.
Many plant-based foods are bulky because of their higher dietary fibre content. Babies and children’s stomachs are small, and they may feel full quickly from bulky fibre foods, before they have had adequate energy and nutrient intake. To ensure young children get the nutrition they need, offer small meals and snacks throughout the day, and offer lower fibre grain foods such as white or wholemeal bread and rice.
Be careful with high fibre foods, as not only are they filling but the phytates in plant foods can impair nutrient absorption. It is best to avoid heavy grain breads, bran cereals and remove the fibrous strings from fruits and vegetables. Babies get all the fibre they need from vegetables, fruit, legumes, infant cereals and breads.
Protein requirements for infants are high due to the rapid growth and development they undergo. Offer your baby a variety of protein rich foods every day to ensure their needs are being met.
Food sources of vegetarian protein for infants include:
- Milk products such as full-fat yoghurt and cheese
- Cooked eggs
- Beans, chickpeas, lentils and soy products, and foods made from them such as hummus, tofu and dahl.
- Smooth nut and seed butters
- Wholemeal grains such as pasta and rice
Iron is an essential mineral and is needed for carrying oxygen in our blood, our muscles and brain, energy production and strengthening our immune system.
There are two forms of iron:
- Haem iron – present in meat, poultry and fish. Haem iron is more easily absorbed than non-haem iron from plant foods.
- Non-haem iron – present mainly in plant foods. Including foods containing vitamin C in the same meal will help baby absorb non-haem iron. Vitamin C rich foods include tomato, capsicum, citrus fruits, kiwifruit and berries.
Sources of iron in a vegetarian diet include:
- Breast milk or infant formula
- Iron fortified baby cereals (e.g. Farex rice cereal)
- Legumes – lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu
- Seeds and nuts – ground or as a smooth nut butter
- Green leafy vegetables – kale, broccoli, spinach
Some babies may still not get enough iron from food. Signs of iron deficiency are developmental and behavioral problems, reduced immunity and tiredness. Always see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products such as meat, fish, milk and eggs. It is essential for producing healthy red blood cells and for neurological functions.
- Breast milk (if mother has adequate vitamin B12 status) or infant formula
- Milk products
Foods that may be fortified with vitamin B12 include (always check the packaging label as not all these products will be fortified):
- Soy products e.g. yoghurt, cheese
- Yeast spreads
- Plant based meat alternatives (check salt suitability for babies)
Babies born to vegan mothers can have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Both mother and baby are likely to need supplementation as prescribed by a health professional. Vegan breastfeeding mothers must also pay careful attention to their vitamin B12 status. Contact your health professional for advice.
Vitamin D helps our bones absorb calcium for strong bones. Some Vitamin D is found in fatty fish, such as salmon and tuna (if eaten), eggs, and some fortified milk and soy products and margarines.
Our bodies make the rest of our vitamin D in our skin from sunshine. As their skin is sensitive, babies can’t safely get the sun exposure required to meet their vitamin D requirements. Adequate vitamin D intake from diet alone is hard to achieve. If your baby is higher risk of Vitamin D deficiency, discuss supplementation with a health professional.
Adequate calcium intake is essential for development of strong bones and teeth. Milk products are an excellent source of calcium. Sources of calcium include:
- Breast milk (or infant formula) until 12 months. Full-fat cow’s milk or fortified soy milk for toddlers.
- Milk products – full-fat yoghurt, cheese
- Almonds – ground or as a smooth paste
- Leafy green vegetables – spinach, bok choy
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in neurological development. This is particularly important in infants. Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids are fish and seafood (if eaten). Avocado, ground nuts and seeds (walnuts, hazelnuts, chia or linseeds) and plant oils (canola, soybean, olive, flaxseed) provide omega-3 fatty acids from alpha-linolenic acid.
Zinc is needed for wound healing and maintaining a healthy immune system. Vegetarian food sources of zinc include milk products, eggs, legumes, ground seeds and nuts, wholemeal breads and cereals.
Our bodies need iodine to make thyroid hormones which control our metabolism and it is necessary for normal brain function. Sources of iodine include milk products, eggs and iodine fortified bread. Avoid iodised salt as babies don’t need salt added to their food.
What about milk?
Babies need breast milk (or infant formula) as their main milk drink until at least 12 months. Cow’s milk and plant-based milk alternatives do not provide the correct balance of nutrients and are not a suitable replacement.
Toddlers over 12 months old can be offered full cream cow’s milk or full-fat soy, rice or oat milk fortified with calcium, as long as there are other sources of protein and vitamin B12 in their diet. Limit milk to around 500mL (2 small cups) per day and encourage your toddler to begin drinking milk from a cup rather than a bottle.
This “Feeding your Baby a Vegetarian Diet” material is of a general nature and has been provided for informational purposes only. If considering feeding your baby a vegetarian or vegan diet we recommend that you consult your doctor, dietitian or pediatrician to make sure you have all the right information. Vegan diets are more difficult to achieve a nutritionally adequate diet for young children and health professional advice is essential for a well-planned nutritious diet, growth monitoring and supplementation as required.