By Alexa Evans RD
By Alexa Evans RD
Breastfeeding is the best form of nutrition for your baby for the first 6 months of life. The period from birth to 1 year is a time when your growing baby is nutritionally vulnerable. If you are vegan and breastfeeding, some thoughtful planning can help to ensure you are supplying your baby with all the nutrients it needs to promote normal growth and development. It’s also important for your health too.
Nutrition during breastfeeding should be based on the Eatwell Guide to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need. Certain nutrients are more commonly found in animal products, so you may need to consider alternative ways to get these important nutrients.
DHA is an omega 3 fatty acid, found primarily in oily fish and eggs. Fatty acids are essential for vision and brain development. For breastfed babies, DHA has been associated with higher mental development scores, improved visual acuity and a higher performance on psychometric testing. Some evidence shows that DHA is found in lower amounts in breast milk of vegan mothers.
Nevertheless, DHA can be converted in the body from the omega 3 fatty acid known as linolenic acid. A way to improve the amount of DHA that your baby makes in their body is to increase the amount of linolenic acid in your breast milk. This involves eating foods that contain linolenic acid, such as flaxeed, rapeseed or soybean oils, green leafy vegetables and grains. However, conversion of linolenic acid to DHA is not very efficient so it may be worth considering a supplement made from algae derived DHA.
Eating high amounts of linoleic acid (not linolenic!) can actually suppress the amount of DHA that is converted in the body. These are found in sunflower, safflower and corn oils, and so eating less of these and more oils containing linolenic acid should help your body to make more DHA.
Vitamin B12 is found mainly in animal foods such as meat, fish, milk, cheese and eggs. As such, a strict vegan diet that involves the absence of these foods could mean a lack of vitamin B12. An adequate intake of vitamin B12 can help to prevent the risk of vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia, neurological damage and developmental delays in babies who are exclusively breastfed.
Breastfeeding mothers need an additional 0.5mcg of vitamin B12 each day. To make sure you are getting enough, you can include foods that are fortified with vitamin B12. This includes some plant milks, oat and rice milks, soy products such as yoghurts, and breakfast cereals. Check the labels and choose one that has been fortified with vitamin B12. Aim to have these at least three times a day. If these foods are not consumed in adequate amounts, the Vegan Society recommends a vitamin B12 supplement of 10mcg per day.
Vitamin D levels in breast milk are generally low, and if a breastfeeding mother is vitamin D deficient, her breast milk will be even lower in vitamin D than normal. Vitamin D during breastfeeding is needed to help your baby absorb calcium for healthy development of bones and teeth.
It is found in oily fish, eggs and some fortified food products, and so we rely additionally on sunlight to get enough vitamin D. However, this is scarce in the UK and so getting enough is difficult for the whole population, let alone vegan breastfeeding mothers.
A supplement of 10mcg is recommended to all breastfeeding mothers. You can also include vitamin D in your diet by getting out in the sun and eating fortified foods such as soy yoghurts and margarines.
During breastfeeding, calcium requirements are higher. Calcium deficiency has been seen in vegan mothers who are breastfeeding. Your growing baby’s demand for calcium can cause bone loss as the calcium is drawn from your bones. To avoid deficiency in both you and your baby you need around 1250mg. Dairy products are the richest sources, but you can get what you need from non dairy sources.
As you can see, you need quite a lot to get the amount of calcium you need. Other vegan sources include some dark green leafy vegetables (e.g. broccoli, kale), almonds / brazil nuts, fortified soy yoghurts / desserts and dried apricots.
Vitamin A adequacy should not be a problem in vegan diets, presuming you are eating a well balanced, varied diet that includes plenty of fruit and vegetables.
In animal foods, vitamin A is known as retinol and is found in meat, fish, liver, dairy products and eggs. Carotenoids are found in plant foods, the most important being beta-carotene. These are converted to vitamin A in the body. They are found in leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables, fruits and some vegetable oils. Include plenty of these in your diet to provide you and your baby with enough vitamin A.
Vitamin A is a fat soluble vitamin, therefore you will need to make sure you are not overly limiting your fat intake, to support the absorption of this nutrient.
Through care and planning of your diet, and with additional supplements of vitamin D and possibly vitamin B12, a vegan diet can be sufficient to provide your baby with all the nutrients it needs for healthy growth and development.
If you are worried about providing all the essential nutrients you need for your baby, talk to your GP or dietitian.
BDA (2012) Food Fact Sheet: Calcium.
BDA (2011) Food Fact Sheet: Vegetarian diets - Keeping a healthy balance.
Briony T and Bishop J (2007) The Manual of Dietetic Practice, 4th ed. Wiley-Blackwell.
Mangels AR, Messina A (2001) Considerations in planning vegan diets: infants. J Am Diet Assoc. 101(6):670-677.