Evidence-Based Nutrient Recommendations

Pregnancy, Infants, and Children

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Contents

Introduction

This page features information about specific details about vegan diets for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and children that are not typically addressed elsewhere. For general information, see Vegan Nutrition in Pregnancy and Childhood by Reed Mangels, PhD, RD and Katie Kavanagh-Prochaska, RD. Our Daily Needs page contains specific recommendations for all ages.

In their 5th Edition (2004) of the Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, the American Academy of Pediatrics says:

Children exhibit good growth and thrive on most lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan diets when they are well planned and supplemented appropriately. (Chapter 12: Nutrition Aspects of Vegetarian Diets, p. 194)

In their 2016 Position Paper, Vegetarian Diets, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says:

It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes

See Real Vegan Children for examples of vegan kids whose mothers had a vegan pregnancy.

Pregnancy

Pregnant vegans should make sure they have a reliable supply of vitamin B12 and iodine (see Daily Needs) and choline.

Deva Nutrition has a Vegan Prenatal Multivitamin.

A systematic review of vegan and vegetarian pregnancies published in 2015 concluded that “vegan [and] vegetarian diets may be considered safe in pregnancy, provided that attention is paid to vitamin and trace element requirements [mainly vitamin B12 and iron].” The authors acknowledged that there were a limited number of studies of vegan and vegetarian pregnancy. They focused on vegan and vegetarian diets that were chosen freely and not linked with limited access to food or with poverty (5).

Two of six studies of vegetarian mothers showed an increased risk of having a boy with hypospadias. You can read more about that research in the article Hypospadias and Vegetarian Diets.

More information:

Infants

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that well-planned vegan diets can satisfy the nutrient needs and normal growth of infants (1).

It’s important for child development that the mothers of exclusively breast-fed infants ensure they’re getting a reliable supply of vitamin B12.

Vegan parents should not try to make their own infant formulas as this often leads to poor child development. Although more research is desirable, it appears that soy infant formulas are safe. See below for information regarding soy formulas.

Breast milk is usually low in vitamin D. Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfed infants be given a vitamin D supplement providing 400 IU/day beginning soon after birth (2). One study found that lactating women who took a vitamin D supplement containing 6,400 IU of vitamin D3 had breast milk that contained enough vitamin D to meet their infants’ needs (6). This could be an alternative to giving the infant a vitamin D supplement.

In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics raised its recommendations for infants from 5 µg (200 IU) of vitamin D per day to 10 µg (400 IU). They stated, “It is now recommended that all infants and children, including adolescents, have a minimum daily intake of 400 IU of vitamin D beginning soon after birth (2).”

More information:

Food writer, Nina Planck, occasionally writes articles to dissuade parents from feeding their infants and children a vegan diet. Here are two responses to her articles from experts on vegan nutrition for infants and children:

Safety of Soy Formulas

The short answer is that soy formula is just as safe as cow’s milk formula, but it’s not intended for pre-term infants.

For a review of the research on the safety of soy formulas, see Soy Part 2—Research.

Children

There are not many published studies of vegan children and most of the available studies are old and have a small number of subjects. When we think about how much more information is now available to vegan parents than was available 30 or more years ago and about the proliferation of fortified foods, it’s possible that studies of vegan children from 1990 or earlier may not be relevant today.

A recent study from Germany examined the diet and growth of 139 vegan children compared to 127 vegetarian and 164 nonvegetarian children age 1-3 years. There was no significant difference in weight-for-age, height-for-age, or weight-for-height scores between the groups, suggesting that the children in all groups were growing normally (7).

Vegan children had the highest intakes of carbohydrate (median 53.8% of calories for vegans; 53.6% for vegetarians; 53.1% for nonvegetarians) and fiber while nonvegetarian children had the highest intakes of protein, fat, and added sugars. On average, all groups had protein intakes that were more than adequate and all groups met the German recommendations for protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “stunting” as when a child’s height for their age is considerably below what would be expected. In some cases, stunting can be explained by a child’s parents being very short—chances are their child will also be short. In other cases, stunting can indicate poor nutrition.

The researchers in the German study reported that 3.6% of the vegan children, 2.4% of the vegetarian children, and 0% of the nonvegetarian children were classified as stunted based on their height for their age. Of the 8 children (5 vegans, 3 vegetarians) classified as stunted, stunting could be explained by factors not related to a vegan or vegetarian diet:

  • Two had a very low caloric intake and were exclusively breastfed beyond the age when complementary foods are usually introduced, and one of those was small for gestational age (SGA) which increases the risk for stunting.
  • Three had parents who were short.
  • One was SGA.
  • One was exclusively breastfed beyond the age when complementary foods are usually introduced and had short parents.
  • One was exclusively breastfed beyond the age when complementary foods are usually introduced.

Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended for the first 6 months after birth with the introduction of complementary foods at around 6 months. After a certain age, breast milk alone cannot meet a child’s needs for calories and nutrients. Most vegan children are not SGA (8).

Overall, this study indicates that a vegan diet supports normal growth in childhood.

More information:

Fiber and Children

Fiber recommendations for children vary depending on their age.

Fiber Recommendations4

Age Fiber
g/day
1-3 years 19
4-8 years 25
Boys, 9-13 years 31
Girls, 9-13 years 26
Boys, 14-18 years 38
Girls, 14-18 years 26

Vegan children often get this much, or even more fiber. There is no official upper limit on fiber; however, sometimes young children whose stomach capacity is small, can fill up on high fiber foods and not get enough calories. Very high fiber diets can interfere with absorption of minerals like iron and zinc.

If a child’s growth is within the normal limits and he or she is eating a variety of foods, it’s not likely that excess fiber is something to be concerned about. If a health care provider is concerned about the child’s growth being lower than expected and the child is eating a lot of high fiber foods—whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables—it may be helpful to reduce fiber somewhat.

For example, having the child eat some low-fiber foods such as refined grains, peeled fruits and vegetables, and added oils could help (3). Nuts and nut butters can also increase children’s calorie and protein intake. For younger children, be sure to chop or grind nuts well enough to prevent choking.

Most children don’t need high fiber supplements—check with the child’s health care provider before using these.

Vegan children who do not eat much because they get full easily can benefit from eating some low-fiber foods such as refined grains, peeled fruits and vegetables, and added oils (3). Nuts and nut butters can also increase their calorie and protein intake. For younger children, be sure to chop or grind nuts well enough to prevent choking.

References

Last updated May 2018

1. Mangels AR, Messina V. Considerations in planning vegan diets: infants. J Am Diet Assoc. 2001 Jun;101(6):670-7.

2. Wagner CL, Greer FR, and the Section on Breastfeeding and Committee on Nutrition. Prevention of Rickets and Vitamin D Deficiency in Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Pediatrics 2008;122:1142-1152. (PDF)

3. Messina V, Mangels AR. Considerations in planning vegan diets: children. J Am Diet Assoc. 2001 Jun;101(6):661-9.

4. Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids. Washington, D.C.:National Academies Press; 2002.

5. Piccoli GB, Clari R, Vigotti FN, et al. Vegan-vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic narrative review. BJOG 2015;122(5):623-33.

6. Hollis BW, Wagner CL, Howard CR, et al. 2015. Maternal versus infant vitamin D supplementation during lactation: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics 136(4):625–34.

7. Weder S, Hoffmann M, Becker K, Alexy U, Keller M. Energy, macronutrient intake, and anthropometrics of vegetarian, vegan, and omnivorous children (1-3 Years) in Germany (VeChi Diet Study). Nutrients. 2019 Apr 12;11(4).

8. Piccoli GB, Clari R, Vigotti FN, Leone F, Attini R, Cabiddu G, Mauro G, Castelluccia N, Colombi N, Capizzi I, Pani A, Todros T, Avagnina P. Vegan-vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic narrative review. BJOG. 2015 Apr;122(5):623-33.

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  • If you have a question about whether it's okay to cut supplements in half or combine supplements to achieve the dose we recommend, the answer is “Yes.” Be aware that nutrient recommendations are only estimates—it's not necessary to consume the exact amount we recommend every single day.
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