Your Guide to Vegan Breastfeeding
For women and babies who are able, breastfeeding has long been recommended by doctors as the optimal way of nourishing your child.
Vegan moms who want to breastfeed are encouraged to do so - it’s in line with the lifestyle, as we discuss at length in this article.
Eating a vegan diet while breastfeeding is an excellent way to keep mom’s body healthy, but there are certain vitamins and nutrients that you will want to monitor or increase/decrease your intake of, to ensure your baby is getting all the essentials.
While it’s extra effort to monitor your diet while you’re breastfeeding, remember that the choices you’re making are affecting another person.
Keeping tabs on your intake of certain nutrients, or taking some extra supplements in the morning is a small price to pay to ensure optimal health and nutrition for your little one.
Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of breastfeeding while on a plant-based diet.
Is It Safe to Breastfeed My Baby If I’m on a Vegan Diet?
Veganism is a safe, nutritious, healthy way to eat at all points of the life cycle, including when we our using our bodies to feed babies.
A vegan mother who is getting enough calories and protein should have nothing to worry about the quality of her breast milk.
Breastfeeding creates a lot of extra effort for your body, which means you need to up your caloric intake to give your body the energy it needs to feed a child.
Studies show that most women produce a generous supply of milk when they consume between 1,800-2,200 calories per day - of course, you will need more if you’re very active. Consuming less than 1,500-1,800 calories can cause a stark drop in your milk production, and puts you at risk for not being able to produce enough milk for your baby.
Of course, no two women are the same - your caloric needs may vary greatly depending on your lifestyle.
Are you very active? Is your weight in a healthy range? Is your baby breastfed exclusively, or does he also eat some solid food?
All these variables will affect how much you need to eat. Be sure to listen to your body during this time - if you’re hungry, eat!
Your body is doing more work to create and supply food for your child. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of simply listening to your body’s hunger signals, a good baseline is 300-500 more calories per day than you ate before breastfeeding.
Fluid intake is also important while nursing.
Depending on your age and activity level, you’ll need ½-¾ ounce of water per pound of bodyweight, per day. So, a 150-pound nursing mother should drink anywhere from 75-112 ounces of water per day - basically, 10-12 cups.
Try carrying a water bottle with you and drink to thirst - there’s no need to force fluids.
Vegan Breastfeeding Supplements & Important Nutrients
Many of these nutrients are perennially important when eating a plant-based diet, but they become even more so when your body is responsible for making food for another person.
Below is a list of the nutrients vegan breastfeeding moms should make sure they’re getting enough of while nursing.
While there are some vegan food sources of B12 - mushrooms and nutritional yeast, for example - these usually won’t cut it as the sole providers of this vitamin, so supplementation is the only option here.
Vitamin B12 is non-negotiable when it comes to baby’s - and moms! - health.
This vitamin is responsible for maintaining the health of nerve cells, keeping blood cells healthy, and creating DNA.
People who are deficient in B12 will experience serious health complications and may experience symptoms like weakness and fatigue, digestive issues, and mental problems.
Vitamin B12 is vitally important for mom’s health, as well as healthy brain development for baby. If nothing else, make sure you’re supplementing your B12 intake, especially while nursing.
For both mom and child, calcium is responsible for building and maintaining strong, healthy bones, and promoting healthy enzymatic activity within the body.
It’s an important building block of a healthy body!
Thanks to TV and print advertising, many people still believe that milk and cheese are the sole sources of calcium, and anyone who doesn’t consume them is at risk for brittle bones.
Simply not true!
In fact, as we note in our complete guide to vegan calcium, there are many plant-based sources of calcium that are even more bioavailable than those from dairy products, without the cholesterol or saturated fat.
For plant-based calcium, turn to cooked collard greens, fortified foods like soy milk and orange juice, and cooked white beans.
Even a handful of dried fruit, like dried figs, can be a calcium-rich source of calories.
Essential for the transportation of oxygen throughout the body via red blood cells, Iron is another important nutrient nursing moms should make sure to consume enough of.
Like calcium, there are plenty of plant-based food sources of iron, and consuming them with foods high in vitamin C will make your body absorb this nutrient more efficiently.
You can supplement iron, but it can cause nausea (no fun, especially while nursing), and food sources are more efficiently used by the body anyway, so try to eat your iron if you can.
Vegan-friendly sources of iron include cooked lentils, tofu, mushrooms, and nuts.
To get the most bang for your calorie buck, consume these foods with other foods that are high in vitamin C, like tomato sauce or orange juice.
Also known as “omega-3”, this nutrient is an essential fatty acid that is responsible for the healthy development of your baby’s brain - being deficient in this nutrient can lead to serious defects, and compromise your baby’s mental health.
Plant-based foods like hemp seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts contain small amounts of this nutrient, but honestly, DHA is too important to leave to chance, especially since it is not as efficiently utilized by the body.
Talk to your doctor to figure out what the right amount and option is best for you and your baby.
Foods to Avoid While Breastfeeding
Because your food sources will affect your baby’s health, mood, and nutrition, it’s important to keep these things in mind when deciding what foods to include and not include in your diet.
Strong Tasting Foods
In some cases, strong-tasting foods might affect the taste of your milk and can cause your baby to react adversely. These foods usually include things like cruciferous vegetables (brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower), foods with a laxative effect (cherries and prunes), and strong-tasting citrus fruits like lemon or pineapple.
To find out if your baby reacts adversely to these foods, test them out slowly so you can tell if the addition of that food causes any problems.
It can be a little bit torturous that nursing moms should cut down on caffeine right when they are most likely to be up at all hours of the night, but caffeinated beverages should be restricted to morning hours, and to just a cup or two instead of sipping all day.
The caffeine in tea and coffee can affect the caffeine content of your milk, which can keep your baby up at night and make him fussy. Remember that caffeine can be found in other food sources too, like chocolate, soda, and some over-the-counter medicines. Like the strong-tasting foods, start out small, and adjust as needed.
Nursing moms should also avoid certain foods and beverages due to health reasons. When nursing, it’s important to limit alcohol consumption to one occasional treat.
Consuming more than one alcohol drink can change your blood alcohol content enough for it to change the alcohol content of your milk. If you do have an extra drink, wait at least two hours until you nurse again, or try to time your drink, so you consume it after you’re done feeding baby.
Like lots of aspects of raising a child, pay close attention to how your baby reacts to certain foods or beverages. You may find that baby is more sensitive to certain things, or that you can mostly consume what you like, and all you need to monitor is whether or not you’re consuming enough of the nutrients listed above.
“Forcing Beliefs” on Your Child, and Other Common Arguments
Eating a plant-based diet can get enough comments on its own - from the supermarket to the office, it seems like everyone has something to say.
That tendency only compounds when you choose to raise your child vegan - especially when you mention eating a vegan diet while breastfeeding.
This knowledge can bring out the worst in people - most notably, the idea that raising your baby vegan is “forcing your beliefs on your child.”
Being confronted by someone about your choices can make it hard to feel good about sticking true to your morals and values, and passing those down to your children. It can be exhausting to have to defend yourself against friends, family, and sometimes even complete strangers, and can make you second-guess whether what you’re doing might somehow be unfair to your child.
When confronted with this argument, remember that “forcing your beliefs on your children” is the nature of parenting.
The whole role of a parent is to teach their child the difference between right and wrong, how to treat others, human or non-human animal, and the ethical code they will take along with them through their lives.
People don’t balk about “forcing beliefs” when you celebrate certain winter holidays, or when you teach your children to be kind to others no matter what they can “do” for you.
That sort of argument is simply a cop-out, to recoil from something they don’t know about or understand. When making the decision to nurse your child while on a vegan diet - and frankly, to keep raising them vegan - it can be helpful to research some common responses to arguments against raising a child on a plant-based diet.
This will not only help you stay strong and confident in your choice, but it may also help educate someone who doesn’t know much about raising healthy vegan kids.
The Beginning of a Vegan Life
Making a choice to stick to your moral code while nursing your child is an important step in raising a vegan baby - if you’re able to breastfeed, you’re already setting the example for your child that it’s possible to live a healthy, happy life without needing to harm animals.
By ensuring you’re getting enough calories, proteins, and nutrients like B12, DHA, and calcium, your baby can not only survive, but thrive with breast milk from a vegan mom.
While many of these nutrients can be consumed through food, you may need to supplement for things like B12 and DHA to make sure you and baby are getting enough to keep you healthy.
This doesn’t invalidate veganism or make it unsustainable - it simply means you’re doing everything in your power to keep your baby healthy without needing to contribute to the suffering of animals.
What could be a better example for a parent to set than that?