Raising a child is difficult enough.
Add the decision to raise that child vegan on top, and suddenly it seems like everyone you meet is an expert on pediatric nutrition.
One low-hanging fruit decision you can answer right away?
Breastfeeding your vegan baby.
Doctors and PETA agree that, if you’re able to do it, breastfeeding is the best form of nourishment for at least the first year of your child’s life.
For some people, this assertion raises eyebrows: isn’t the whole point of veganism to abstain from anything that comes from an animal?
The short answer? Most of the time, yes.
In this case? No.The long answer?
Let’s dive into the details of why human breast milk is 100% vegan for growing human babies.
The Purpose of Milk
This might seem elementary, but it’s important to remember that there is a biological function for milk, and it’s not for lightening coffee or making into cheese.
Female bodies create milk for the sole purpose of feeding babies.
Each mother creates the perfect blend of nutrients and nourishment for her own child, which means the best food for baby cows is cow’s milk, the best food for baby goats is goat milk, and the best food for baby humans is human milk.
Just as drinking mother’s milk is a natural process for baby mammals, so is the weaning process – when a baby cow, goat, or human moves away from the milk its mother makes for solid food.
At that point, the baby can get all the nutrition it needs from other sources – there’s a reason it’s weird to think about a teenager still breastfeeding!
After a certain point, breastmilk is no longer necessary, but while the youngster is growing, mom’s milk is the best, most nourishing food possible.
Whether she is a cow, sheep, or a human, her body produces her baby’s food naturally, and she gives it willingly – which leads us to consent and autonomy.
The Basics of Ethical Veganism
The idea of “abstaining from all animal products” makes veganism conceptually easy to understand when you’re, say, answering a question about what you eat, or need to explain veganism to your grandmother.
But, like many ideologies, there is more to why we are vegans than a blanket statement about abstention – determining whether or not something is truly vegan has more to do with autonomy than the fact that it is an animal product.
Autonomy and consent boil down to the idea that no one can do something with your body unless you give them explicit permission – no violence, no sexual advances, no unwanted contact, nothing unless you have given them an absolute green light.
The idea is that your body is yours and yours alone, and only you are in a position of authority to determine what anyone else can do to it.
When asked why they choose not to purchase and consume animal products, most ethical vegans will give the same general answer – simply put, “it’s not mine.”
It’s always a strange thing to hear someone begin grace with “we thank the animal, which gave its life for this meal,” because in actuality, the animal’s life was taken unwillingly, and if given a chance to escape or avoid slaughter, it would have.
Because the animal’s body belongs to that animal and not to humans, a person has no right to take that animal’s life against its will.
As we mentioned earlier, female bodies produce milk for the purpose of feeding their babies.
Because milk is produced by the mother’s body, it is the mother’s choice alone what happens to that milk.
How Is Taking Milk the Same as Meat?
I’ve always found it helpful, when talking about bodily autonomy, to think about the difference between your flesh and your hair.
Your flesh can be compared to meat – to take it would be to cause, at best, terrible pain, and at worst, your life.
But what about your hair?
It’s something that’s produced by your body, falls out sometimes on its own, and that you might regularly make the decision to cut off entirely, or not at all.
Now think about how you would feel if someone were to cut all your hair off against your will.
It would probably feel like the complete opposite of when you decide to get a haircut – it would be violating, inappropriate, and immoral – because your hair is produced by your body, and only you get to decide what happens to it.
Milk – Making the Connection
When a mother cow produces milk, she’s doing so with the intent of feeding her baby.
However, when she is a dairy cow, and that milk needs to be sold to humans, the calf must be removed from the picture entirely, so it doesn’t slurp up all the product and profit.
Mother and calf are separated almost immediately, which deprives the calf of the milk its mother has created for it, steals the mother cow’s child, and completely violates that cow’s bodily autonomy.
That mother cow’s body has been exploited for its production of milk, and she has had no say in where that milk ends up.
She didn’t make it for people – she made it for her calf.
Think about how different this is from the normal, completely natural process of a mother cow feeding her baby.
Just as vegans encourage a mother cow being able to feed her calf the milk produced by her body, vegans also encourage human babies to drink the milk their mother’s body has created.
When a human mother feeds her child, she is doing exactly what nature intended – nourishing her child with the milk she’s created for it.
She has autonomy over her body to decide to use that milk to feed her child, and consents to doing so – she is making the conscious choice to breastfeed her baby.
This philosophy is in perfect harmony with vegan morals and values.
Veganism is not about abstaining from milk or dairy because of some belief that milk is bad or evil – it comes from the idea that we should only be drinking someone’s milk if:
- we are the growing child of the person or animal who produced that milk, or
- we have been given clear permission to consume it.
Because we cannot obtain consent from a mother cow, sheep, or goat, we do not have the right to consume her milk.
However, we can obtain permission from a willing, autonomous human woman, so consensual breastfeeding is absolutely 100% in line with vegan values and beliefs.
What About Banked Human Milk?
Women who are unable to breastfeed may turn to milk banks, which use milk that has been donated by lactating women to use to feed their baby.
Some people believe that, because the mother is not feeding the milk directly to her own baby, this would not be vegan, but in practice, it is also in line with vegan morals and values.
Again, it is the idea of consent here that makes banked breast milk vegan.
Women who donate their milk to banks are doing so willingly, with full knowledge of what the milk will be used for. No one is forcing them to give their milk away, and no one is having them go through the process under any false pretenses, or without full knowledge of the intent.
Unlike cow’s milk, the milk used in banks is not stolen from the mouths of any babies, and the women who bring it there have agreed to give it away.
In addition to consent, compassion, a pillar of veganism, is an important part of what makes banked breast milk vegan.
For a woman who wants to breastfeed her baby, the inability to – whether that be because she cannot produce enough milk, her baby will not latch, or some other issue – can be devastating.
Compassion, the feeling of concern for others that prompts the need to help, is what might drive another woman to donate her breastmilk to help give someone else’s baby the nutrition they need to grow up healthy and happy.
If cows, sheep, and goats could somehow open their mouths, agree to donate their milk to humans, and provide it without force, even that would be vegan.
The difference between a woman breastfeeding her baby or using willingly donated banked milk, versus humans taking milk meant for a baby cow, sheep, or goat, without consent, is what makes breastfeeding and banked milk vegan-friendly ways to feed a child, and other animal-based milk incompatible with a vegan way of life.
If you are thinking of donating your breastmilk to a mother-to-be or you want to feed your baby human breast milk instead of formula, visit the Human Milk Banking Association of North America for more information and locations.
Breastfeeding a Vegan Baby
While it is certainly milk that comes from an animal, there is a huge difference between human breastfeeding and consuming milk from other species.
Because a human woman can consent to providing milk to her child and is capable of making her own decision to do so without the need for force, a human mother breastfeeding her baby, or using banked breast milk from a consenting human female, is perfectly in line with the vegan way of life.
Just as a calf drinking its mother’s milk is completely natural, so is a human child drinking the milk from its own mother – or at least, a willing member of its own species.