How To Wean Your Baby As A Vegetarian

It involves lots of beans - and the ability to ignore judgemental remarks

Baby eating veg

by Nicola Kelly |
Updated on

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It was the slightly raised eyebrow that said it all. I repeated what I had just said to the health visitor in front of me, almost too boldly this time, for fear of being judged: 'We’re weaning him onto a vegetarian diet.'

Deeply unimpressed, she ushered a colleague into the room. A mini conference was held about my seven-month-old baby. Pamphlets were handed over, keyboards tapped. The results came in: he would likely end up deficient in iron and calcium, if he wasn’t already. Vitamin B12 was vital but probably lacking. Daily Vitamin D supplements to complement his breastmilk weren’t enough. A few clicks later, I had been booked onto a council-led weaning course, where I’d receive more information about how to 'safely' feed my child.

So I turned up to the course, my little boy perched on my lap, and a group of three other mums and babies. Two of the babies were mixed-fed; one formula-fed; all - bar us - were omnivores. After the introductions, we were asked to discuss what a balanced diet should consist of. The main food groups? Carbohydrates, fats, proteins. The best sources of protein? Red meat, lean white meats and fish. I threw in my tuppence worth, adding pulses, beans and nuts to the list. 'You might struggle to get your baby to enjoy lentils,' I was warned, with a wry smile. I stopped attending.

It wasn’t the first time the alarm bell had been raised about my baby’s health. In pregnancy, I was repeatedly told I needed to increase the amount of protein I ate to at least 60 grams a day, making up a quarter of my daily calorie intake. Concerned relatives and friends sent me links to studies about the risks associated with excluding meat and fish while pregnant. The reports indicated potential problems with our unborn son’s brain development, vital organs and bone density. My boyfriend - a vegan now, and vegetarian since he was 8 - did his own research to rebut these claims. I felt caught in the middle and very judged.

Weaning a baby and raising a child on an alternative diet remains highly controversial, despite the steep rise in families moving to vegetarianism and veganism over the last five years. While the American Dietitic Association says a well-planned, varied and supplemented vegetarian diet can support adequate nutrition, leading to lower rates of mortality and lower intake of fat, British parents are advised not to adopt an alternative diet without medical supervision.

Paediatric dietician Bahee Van de Bor, a member of the British Dietetic Association, believes that a vegetarian diet can be beneficial for babies, reducing the likelihood of picky eating in later years. 'Children on a plant-based diet will most likely eat more fibre, folate and other B vitamins, which is great for overall health,' she says.

But how should we wean a baby to make sure they're not missing out on important nutrients from meat and fish? Baby and child nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed recommends single vegetables for the first 10 days of weaning, before introducing blended flavours. As with all healthy meat-free diets, a wide variety of plant-based foods - including vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds - is essential.

'You might need to put some extra work into planning what you're feeding your baby once they’ve moved on from first foods,' she says. 'Focusing on offering a balance of food groups can really help. Think about lots of different veggies and fruits; carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, potatoes; and protein and iron-rich foods such as lentils, beans, tofu, pulses, plain yoghurt, nut butters and eggs.'

A vegan diet is trickier for growing children so, for babies and toddlers who aren’t having dairy, eggs or fish, extra nutrients should be considered. 'Vitamin A, C and D should be given as supplements for all babies from 6 months,' she explains.' On top of this, a vegan baby will need vitamin B12 as a supplement and potentially iodine and omega-3 - but this needs to be discussed with a healthcare professional first, ideally.'

Questioning the decisions we make about how to feed our children causes us to second guess ourselves. The last thing we want is for our child to suffer. Even the suggestion that they may be malnourished or nutrient-deficient causes unnecessary panic and guilt in a time already so laden with anxiety. We have responsibilities, yes; but we also have choices, and those choices should be respected.

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