Is a vegan diet safe while breastfeeding?
Breast milk is absolutely unique and amazing in its ability to make the most perfect food for a baby’s first six month of life. Even once solids are introduced, breast milk continues to have benefits for mothers and benefits for babies no matter how long the breastfeeding relationship extends. All breast milk is a living substance, unable to be replicated in a laboratory or kitchen even with the best quality milk of another animal.
A vegan diet and breastfeeding are compatible. A vegan mother can produce perfectly healthy milk for her baby, though there are certain nutrients that she must watch closely, and perhaps supplement, to ensure her baby is getting all necessary vitamins.
What vitamins may need supplementation in vegans?
This vitamin is the one that is most likely to be low in vegan mothers because Vitamin B12 is found in animal products. Vegans, because they consume no animal protein, should take care to ensure they are getting enough B12. Nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, fortified soy products, and/or a vitamin supplement are all options. Many vegan mothers who are low in Vitamin B12 will not show outward symptoms, though a blood test or analysis of breast milk can detect this deficiency. When breast milk levels are low in Vitamin B12, breastfed babies will also be deficient.
Infants with a Vitamin B12 deficiency can display symptoms of failure to thrive, lethargy, hypotonia, development delays or regression, megaloblastic anemia, cerebral atrophy, and/or irreversible neurological damage. Many times the first symptom is a lack of interest in feeding. It is recommended that infants of vegan mothers be given vitamin supplements from birth.1
Many adults today are Vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is synthesized in our bodies through sunlight. Due to covering our bodies with clothes or sunscreen, living in extreme northern or southern climates, and/or having lifestyles that keep us inside much of the day deficiency in this vitamin is an increasing issue among adults and children. Cod Liver Oil is a rich natural source for this Vitamin, but direct sunlight is the best source. Milk can be fortified with Vitamin D so vegans, because they do not consume any dairy, will need to be aware of the possibility for lower levels of Vitamin D. Hale (2012) states that supplementing a mother whose Vitamin D levels are low with doses of 4000 IU/day can effectively increase breast milk levels of Vitamin D.2
A vegan diet may lead to a zinc deficiency in breastfed babies. Symptoms of zinc deficiency include growth retardation, loss of appetite, and impaired immune function. While zinc is found in food a variety of foods, its bio-availability is higher in meats (making it easier to absorb when from animal products). Grains and legumes contain phytates that bind zinc and inhibit its absorption, especially when grains and legumes are not soaked or sprouted properly.
There are a number of vegan-friendly sources of zinc:
- Toasted wheat germ
- Roasted pumpkin and squash seeds
- Sesame seeds
- Dark Chocolate and Cocoa Powder
- Roasted Peanuts
- Cooked Napa Cabbage
In vegan children, once solids are introduced, their protein needs may be slightly higher. The World Health Organization recommends beginning solids around six months of age and introducing soft fruits, vegetables, meat, chicken, fish, and full fat dairy such as yogurt. If your family chooses not to give these foods to your child, you may consider offering dairy products (yogurt, cheese, etc.) to ensure your baby gets adequate vitamins and minerals during the first few years of life which include such rapid growth.