We’ve got no qualms with adults adopting a healthy, well-rounded vegan diet, but putting a newborn or infant on a plant-based-only regimen? Um, no. Absolutely not.
While that may seem glaringly obvious, a 14-month-old Italian baby was hospitalized earlier this year after being fed a vegan diet.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the child weighed as little as a 3-month-old and his calcium level was dangerously low—described as “the minimum needed to survive.” This exacerbated a pre-existing heart condition and caused the baby to need emergency surgery. As the baby recovered in the hospital, his parents were under investigation and authorities were considering granting custody to the grandparents, who brought him into the hospital.
Unfortunately, as the Chronicle noted, Italy has seen at least four similar instances in the past year and a half, where children have been hospitalized due to a strict vegan diet.
Of course, the problem isn’t limited to Italy. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported on an 11-month-old baby in Spain who had been diagnosed with scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency) after being fed an almond milk-only diet. In fairness, the baby’s parents said they only switched to almond milk when the baby developed a rash in reaction to the cow milk-based formula they’d been using. The parents also claimed to have tried to feed the child fruits and vegetables, to no avail.
Spanish doctors, who covered the case in the journal Pediatrics, wrote that "when plant-based beverages are the exclusive diet in the first year of life and not consumed as a supplement to formula or breastfeeding, it can result in severe nutritional problems."
It’s also worth pointing out that vegan or vegetarian moms who are breastfeeding need to be vigilant about their diets, as well. Courtney White, a board certified lactation consultant at Las Colinas Medical Center in Irving, Texas, told Dallas ABC news that she's seeing more babies deficient in B-12 because of moms’ meat- and dairy-free lifestyles.
"I'm watching these babies, the mom has great milk supply, the baby has great output but maybe the baby isn't hitting a milestone or the weight is on the low totem pole," White said, adding that babies who aren’t getting enough B-12 can often also be more irritable and have trouble sleeping.
That doesn’t mean all lactating moms need to start eating steak and cheeseburgers, though. If you’re trying to maintain a meat-free diet while breastfeeding, then talk to your doctor about ways to keep your B-12 up, including incorporating more dairy and eggs into your diet or, if you’re vegan, looking to fortified almond or soy milk.