The vegan diet is a popular one, and the lifestyle has gained curiosity from all types of eaters. Data from 2023 shows that 1.62 million people are vegan. It guides not only the food that they eat, but skincare products and clothes. For some, this love for veganism in their lifestyle has become a desire to feed their families in this same way.

There is still a lot of confusion about whether vegan diets are sustainable in the long-term or beneficial for adults. Some wonder whether an exclusively vegan diet for babies and toddlers is safe. The answer is pretty nuanced and depends on each family and child. 21Ninety reached out to Candice Weaver to gain some clarity on the principles and safest approach.

21NINETY: Is a vegan diet appropriate for babies and toddlers?

CANDICE WEAVER: People of many cultures around the world adhere to a plant-based diet. It arguably sets these populations up for a lower lifetime cardiovascular risk than those who do not.

Vegan diets do not use any animal products, including eggs or dairy. Though this is fine for most adults, it can be risky for babies and toddlers because of the unique dietary needs required [to] support their extremely rapid growth rate. They require more protein, calcium and vitamins D and B12 than adults. Ideally, infants should receive breastmilk and supplemental vitamin D to optimize their nutrition for most of the first year. However, for infants in plant-based households who are unable to receive breastmilk, a pediatrician-approved soy-based infant formula can provide sufficient nutrition.

After an infant turns one, it becomes more difficult to maintain proper nutrition on a vegan diet because they need sufficient amounts of fat and protein, which can be hard to achieve on a strict vegan diet. However, families around the world who culturally adhere to a plant-based diet often include nutritious foods, such as beans and lentils, avocados, soy yogurt, coconut and nuts to make sure their toddlers adequately meet their nutritional needs.

In summary, a vegan diet can be appropriate for babies and toddlers when it is carefully planned to ensure they receive all the necessary nutrients for their growth and development. While this is more difficult to achieve than a diet that includes dairy, it’s not entirely impossible. Close monitoring and guidance from a pediatrician is crucial to ensure the diet meets the developmental needs of the child.

21N: Do vegan babies need supplements?

CW: Vegan babies often require supplements to meet their nutritional needs. Their pediatrician may screen them for anemia or other deficiencies.   

Vitamin D is an example of a supplement that many commonly use. It is essential for bone health, often obtained from sunlight. Babies who are exclusively fed human breast milk should have supplemental vitamin D.

Plant-based iron is less readily absorbed than other sources of iron, so supplementation or iron-fortified foods may be necessary. Vitamin B12, which is crucial for neurological development and found naturally only in animal products, is sometimes necessary for babies who are fed a vegan diet.

21N: What types of deficiencies could stunt the growth of plant-based babies and toddlers?

CW: Several nutrient deficiencies could potentially stunt the growth of babies and toddlers who consume a strictly plant-based diet, so it’s important for these babies to have regular well care and monitoring by a pediatrician. Inadequate protein intake can affect growth and muscle development.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to developmental delays and neurological issues. Vitamin D and calcium deficiencies can result in poor bone growth and development. Lack of iron can cause anemia and hinder cognitive and physical development.

21N: How can caregivers be sure to support their plant-based baby from deficiency?

CW: To support a plant-based baby and prevent deficiencies, parents or other caregivers should be sure to bring their vegan babies to see pediatrician regularly.  Board certified Pediatrician rand Family Medicine physicians can monitor a baby’s growth and development, and recommend supplements when indicated. Consulting a registered dietitian with experience in vegan nutrition is also helpful.

Parents who prefer to exclusively feed their toddlers plant based meals should be sure to include a variety of nutrient-dense foods, such as legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and plant based milks and cereals that are fortified with vitamins and minerals.

This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.