Raising your little one as a vegetarian is a challenge, but it’s not impossible. If you take the time to learn your baby’s specific nutritional needs, she can become a very healthy child.
“Infants and toddlers grow at an astounding rate,” says Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., professor of pediatrics, obstetrics, and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “To fuel their physical growth and brain development, they use energy (or calories) at three times the rate of adults. And if nothing else, meat and dairy products are concentrated sources of calories and certain nutrients.”
A baby who eats little or no animal products is more likely to lack adequate calories, protein, fat, calcium, iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, says William Cochran, M.D., associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Pennslyvania State University College of Medicine/Geisinger Medical Center. A deficiency of any of these crucial nutrients can affect everything from proper growth to nerve and brain development. Be sure to inform your pediatrician that your family is vegetarian, so that she too can be vigilant about checking for signs of nutritional deficiency at your child’s regular visits. That said, here’s a taste of what you need to know to keep Baby healthy and strong.
If you’re vegan and avoid all animal products (including cow’s milk), be aware that any child under age 2 should be consuming breast milk or soy formula that’s fortified with iron and vitamin D, cautions Dr. Cochran. Letting Baby play in the sun for 10 or 15 minutes without suncreen a few times a week will also help ensure proper vitamin D levels. Breast milk and formula will also provide a good deal of Baby’s calcium. Other good sources for older babies include calcium-fortified soy milk, rice milk, and orange juice.
Finding dietary sources of B12, however, may prove more difficult. Some cereals and soy milks are fortified. You can also sprinkle Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast into Baby’s food (it’s a little like parmesan cheese). If you’re worried that your child isn’t getting enough calcium, iron, vitamin B12 or D, talk to your doctor about whether vitamin supplements are necessary.
Everything But Meat
Families that eschew meat but still eat eggs and dairy products (lacto-ovo-vegetarians) have less to worry about. These foods contain most of the nutrients found in beef and chicken. Just remember that variety is key. Some of the most nutritious foods for all babies include sweet potatoes, bananas, avocados, papaya, cooked carrots, applesauce, and pureed split pea or lentil soup. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians should, of course, offer cheeses and yogurt.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your child is a vegetarian or not, as long as he is getting the nutrients he needs in the right number of calories,” says Dr. Lawrence. “The bottom line is that eating is a family affair. The emphasis of meals should be as much on relaxation and sharing as it is on counting nutrients.”