Saturday September 24th 2022

Vegetarian Baby? Here’s what you need to know.

Modern nutrition is a thorny topic for health-conscious moms. Mass manufacturing and a convenience-driven culture have led to questionable chemicals and preservatives being added to our favourite foods, cows and chickens are injected with hormones and junk food is cleverly marketed at young taste buds.

Some parents choose to raise their children as vegetarians in a bid to promote wholesome eating habits, but is it nutritionally safe to exclude some animal products from your baby’s diet?

Experts agree that babies and toddlers can thrive on a vegetarian diet, as long as it includes vital nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron, Vitamin B12, zinc, Vitamin A and D.

Vegetarians eat no meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustaceans. They also avoid slaughtered animal by-products such as animal fats and gelatine.

Port Elizabeth paediatrician Paul Gebers says that in their first year, babies are essentially lacto-vegetarians – vegetarians who consume dairy products – because of their milk requirements.

From year two, the best foods for a vegetarian baby are fruit, vegetables and a variety of grains, followed by protein-rich foods such as cottage cheese, tofu and the legume family – beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils.

“Thereafter, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (consuming both dairy products and eggs) is a healthy choice for most children.”

What about vegans?

Some vegetarians exclude all animal products and eat only foods of plant origin, such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds, nuts, grains and vegetable fats. This diet is more restrictive, as sources of nutrients from eggs and dairy products are excluded.

Gebers does not support veganism for babies. “I advise people in terms of what is considered a balanced, healthy diet. If egg and dairy alternatives are not given, (then) added fat-soluble vitamins and certain trace elements are necessary.”

A vegan mother, for example, would need B12 supplements during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Parents who feel strongly about veganism should always work closely with their child’s doctor or a reputable dietician.

Gebers says vegetarian parents can allow babies a taste of meat at some stage, if they wish, with no ill effects. Mutton and veal are best, followed later by chicken, fish and pork. Babies often “love” meat, he says, but older children are frequently put off animal products after discovering that meat comes from chickens and cows!

The benefits

Western Cape-based nutritional consultant Noelene van Huyssteen says that fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains contain macro-nutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats), micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) as well as thousands of plant nutrients such as antioxidants and bioflavonoids. Scientists have also recently discovered a cancer-fighting class of nutrients called phytochemicals in these foods.

With their emphasis on plants and wholesome grains, vegetarians can more easily avoid the processed food trap and reap the rewards of raw food.

“No matter how many vitamins or minerals are added to breakfast cereal, it does not contain the unique combination of thousands of delicate phytonutrients found in a strawberry or leaf of lettuce.

“By eating a high raw food diet (fresh fruit and raw vegetables, avocado, nuts and seeds), not only are you consuming less processed and junk foods, but you are also taking in large quantities of glucose, vitamins and minerals and water soluble fibre.  This will result in good digestion with little to no stomach upsets, diarrhoea, constipation or bloating.”

Pros and cons of calcium

Calcium is always a concern for parents, but van Huyssteen says that milk products can actually contribute to ill-health in some individuals

“Contrary to popular belief, dairy products do not prevent loss of bone density. In fact, countries that have the highest incidence of osteoporosis and dental decay also record the highest intake of dairy products.

“The hormone levels in dairy herds are also usually high. Consider the fact that an average cow feeding a calf produces only three-and-a-half litres of milk a day. But a dairy cow on hormones can produce between 50 to 100 litres a day. Residues of these hormones can upset your child’s hormonal system.”

Children allergic or intolerant to dairy products may suffer from constipation, diarrhoea, excess mucous production and related issues such as sinusitis, tonsillitis, ear infections, runny noses and post-nasal drip.

Vegan children – or those with dairy intolerances – must therefore obtain their calcium from other sources such as dark green, leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, tofu and calcium-enriched soya milks. Close monitoring by the child’s doctor or dietician is essential.

Interestingly, absorption of calcium is linked to Vitamin D. Getting enough natural sunlight – between 20 to 30 minutes daily of non-midday sun – will facilitate efficient absorption of calcium and ensure that it is deposited in bones and teeth.

Feeding your baby

There are several important nutrients that you should include in a vegetarian diet.

Advise your child’s doctor or consult a dietician if you choose this feeding route.

It is useful to note that protein and calcium are contained in all fruit and vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds, so eating a wide variety of these will boost your baby’s intake of these important nutrients.

The medical consultants on popular UK website advise that much of your baby’s nutritional requirements will be met by breast milk or formula (including vegan formula) until the age of one. A restricted diet may necessitate continuing with formula or breastfeeding beyond one year, so consult your doctor or dietician about this.

Always introduce nuts and seeds slowly to your baby, particularly if there is a family history of allergy. Peanuts are legumes – not nuts – and are highly allergenic, so rather choose almonds or sunflower seeds.

Nuts must always be ground finely for babies under two years old and can be sprinkled on vegetables or added to fruit smoothies. They should only be introduced after one year.

Van Huyssteen adds that green and yellow vegetables and Vitamin C-rich fruits are particularly important.

Iron is found in dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli, green beans and peas, dried fruit (choose preservative-free brands), nuts, eggs, pulses such as baked beans and lentils and soya products.

Protein sources include nuts, seeds, pulses such as baked beans and lentils, soya products, eggs, milk, yoghurt and cheese. Bread, rice, pasta and other grains also contain usable protein.

Vitamin B12 is present in low-salt yeast extracts, milk, dairy products, fortified cereals, soya products, fortified margarine and vegan products such as veggie burgers. Be sure to check the salt content of processed vegan products.

Calcium sources, besides milk and other dairy products, are dark green vegetables, seeds, nuts, fortified foods, tofu and calcium-enriched soya milks.

Vitamin D is found in fortified breakfast cereals, vegetable margarines and some soya products. Sunlight also produces Vitamin D in the body, so exposing your baby to 20 – 30 minutes of safe, natural light every day is important. Always be aware of sun safety, as your baby’s skin is extremely delicate.

Vitamin A sources are grain products, fruit, vegetables, milk, cheese and yoghurt.

Zinc is contained in vegetarian-friendly foods such as beans, nuts, some seafoods, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals and dairy products.

Good fats contain essential fatty acids. These are found in avocado, raw nuts and seeds, olives, sweet corn on the cob and cold-pressed, unprocessed vegetable oils.

Veggie fare – easy as pie!

The World Health Organisation advises mothers to delay solids until six months. If you choose a vegetarian diet, you should ideally start with soft, ripe seasonal fruit (just mash or puree) and then move onto vegetables and grains.

As your baby turns into a toddler, add more variety such as lentil hot pots or shepherd’s pie, veggie stir-fry with rice or mashed potato, macaroni cheese, avocado dip on jacket potatoes, beans on toast, butternut and sweet potato stew, pasta in home-made tomato and herb sauce and omelettes or scrambled egg with mixed vegetables.

An excellent breakfast for babies older than one year is the fruit and nut smoothie – simply blend two or three acid or sub-acid fruits (citrus or apples and pears are easy and popular) with a handful of ground almonds or sunflower seeds and filtered/spring water or 100% apple juice. Younger babies can be spoon-fed a thicker “porridge”, while older babies and toddlers love to drink their breakfast “shakes” through a straw.

Snack ideas include fresh and preservative-free dried fruit (try dried mango strips), vegetable strips, unsalted rice cakes, raisins, pitted dates and sweet corn on the cob. Tahini or mashed avocado make great dips.

Real life stories

Johannesburg mom Marie Beytell, 40, chose to raise her first child, Mira, as a vegan until she was 17 months old. She plans to do the same with her two-month-old son Lourens.

“I gave Mira only breast milk until she was seven months old and continued breastfeeding until 17 months. We started feeding her only fruit and then slowly introduced vegetables after a year old.” Grains were added after twenty months.

Marie introduced Mira to chicken and fish when she stopped breastfeeding, but says the decision to start her off on fruit and vegetables contributed to a strong, healthy immune system and quick recovery from illness.

“In general, we steer clear of processed foods as well as foods containing preservatives.”

British mom Cathryn Sheridan follows a predominantly vegan diet for her children Arabella, eight, and Iolantha, 21 months.

“I chose this after being part of a baby nutrition support group. It was a very easy decision. They have never had antibiotics; I’ve found diet to work on a curative and preventative level and have seen that my children function better without sugar, dairy and junk food. “

Both Marie and Cathryn advise moms who choose this route to join a support group, do a lot of research, find a sympathetic doctor or medical professional and not rely on unbiased sources of information such as food manufacturers and advertisements.

FACT SHEET – Nutrient Maths

Gebers says vegetarians must be aware of recommended daily intakes of certain nutrients. Some are categorised under “recommended daily allowances” (RDAs) and others under “adequate intakes” (AIs). These figures are drawn from the National Academy of Science, Food and Nutrition Board.

B12 – infants need 0.3 to 0.5 micrograms (mcg); children need 0.7 to 1.4 mcg; (RDA)

Vitamin D – infants, children and teens need 5mcg (AI)

Calcium – infants need 210 – 270 mg; children 500 – 1300 mg (AI)

Protein – infants need 12 – 14g; children need 16 – 46g (RDA)

Iron – infants need 6 – 10 mg; children need 10 – 15mg (RDA)

Zinc – infants 5mg; children need 10 – 15mg (RDA)

Vitamin A – infants and children need 400mcg daily


Healthy Kids The Natural Way, by Mary-Ann Shearer and Charlotte Meschede (Ibis Books, 2001)

Noelene van Huyssteen, lactation consultant and Natural Way health and lifestyle consultant ( or 082 468 5935)

Pediatrics in Review –

The Vegetarian Society –

Copyright : Beth Cooper, 2010. First published in Your Baby magazine, 2006