Now that our daughter, Florence, is six months we have starting to wean her onto solid foods. Up to this point she has been exclusively breast fed. I did express for a few months, but she started rejecting the bottle pretty early on and, although we tried a miscellany of bottle types and teats, we eventually gave up persevering in order to avoid the meltdowns. There has been something amazing about being the sole provider of Florence’s nutrition to this point, and I know how lucky I am that latching and feeding, while painful in the early days, came quite naturally to her, which helped me out a lot. But there is also something exciting about reaching this next stage in our baby’s life, not least as she has been showing an interest in food for a little while now.
Of course there is a certain ease that comes from breastfeeding that you don’t have once you start to wean: it’s a whole lot cleaner for one and there is a lot less preparation and organisation required. But there is something so exciting about giving your baby their first taste of solid food and watching as they engage with pieces of broccoli or banana, as they learn to hold a spoon or cup, and as they eventually actually eat something (something which didn’t happen on the first few attempts!).
As with everything baby, there are countless opinions and pieces of advice on how best to go about the weaning process. I’m not going to give you a list of the pros and cons of baby-led versus parent-led weaning here, nor am I going to suggest that one is better than the other. We are doing a combination of the two because that is what feels right to us and you should do what feels right for you and try not to feel pressured by the flurry of opinions that will inevitably follow whatever decision you make.
What I will pass on are a few of nuggets that were passed to me:
- Remember that your baby’s stomach is the same size as their clenched fist
- Assume nothing will go in to begin with then anything that does go in is a bonus
- Eat with your baby (I find that this works really well – it not only makes me more patient about the process – one for you, one for me! – but Florence always takes in more when we eat together)
- The consistency of adult porridge is a good guideline for purees i.e. it doesn’t have to be liquid mush, texture is good
- Embrace the mess and enjoy!
I will also add that official advice now is to wait until your baby is six months old before you start introducing solids, as this is when their gut is ready for food (it was suggested to us that early weaning could have a detrimental impact on digestive health later in life in a weaning workshop with Nutritionist Kirsty Coleman). At this age your baby will also have better head control, be able to sit up properly and will have lost the tongue-thrust reflex, all physiological development points that will make eating solids easier.
Where the slightly contentious issue for us lies is in our decision to raise our child on a predominantly plant-based diet.
Of course this decision has been met with the usual barrage of opinion and, as it is something that I feel very passionately about, it is often difficult to keep my emotions in check on the issue. Here, however, I want to remain as objective as possible in passing on the research I have done in raising a vegetarian child. I say ‘vegetarian’ and ‘predominantly plant-based’ rather than ‘vegan’, as it may be that we allow our daughter products containing egg or dairy in due course, but at the time of writing she is still vegan.
My research into raising a plant-based baby is based on a number of sources that I trust, including the NHS, a nutritionist who we saw for a weaning workshop, and the Vegan Society and Viva websites. Material is also drawn from a handful of articles from dieticians and bloggers, and I’ve added links where appropriate. It is important to reiterate that I am certainly no expert in this area and the below is just my findings and the way that I have applied it to weaning my daughter. I know that child-rearing and diet are two very contentious issues. What I hope I’m providing here is some reassurance about what is possible and a springboard to do some more research if this a path you are thinking of taking.
As with vegan adults, a well-planned, plant-based diet can provide a baby with all of the nutrients and the British Dietetic Association recognises that vegan nutrition can support healthy living at every age and life-stage.
That said, the Department of Health recommends that all children aged 6 months to 5 years are given a daily vitamin supplements containing vitamins A, C and D (they also recommend that breastfed babies are given a daily vitamin D supplement from birth). Vitamin drops are widely available and we are lucky enough to live in a borough where vitamin D is provided free of charge at our health centre. Vitamin D2 is always suitable for vegans but for D3 you need to check that it is from a vegan source (https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrients/vitamin-d). If you are in doubt about supplements it is worth asking at your health centre or at the GP. Vegan babies may also benefit from an iodine and vitamin B12 supplements, although B12 is also found in fortified oat and soya milk.
Vegan sources of vitamin B12
If you are a vegan yourself B12 will be on your radar as something that needs supplementing or to come from a fortified source. The same applies for your baby. Foods that may be fortified with vitamin B12 include soya yoghurts and non-dairy milks. Vitamin B12 is also found in yeast extract, but make sure you choose a brand with no added salt for your baby.
Vegan sources of iodine
Plant foods containing iodine include wholegrains, green beans, courgettes, kale, spring greens, watercress, strawberries and organic potatoes with skin. However, the amount of iodine in these foods can vary depending on how much iodine is in the soil. Seaweed, which absorbs iodine from seawater, is another good source, and small amounts of powdered or crumbled seaweed added to soups, stews, salads, pasta dishes can help to boost iodine levels (https://www.veganfoodandliving.com/the-best-sources-of-iodine-on-a-vegan-diet/). Again, however, the amounts of iodine in seaweed can vary and arguably the best way of ensuring a reliable amount of iodine in the diet is with supplements.
Milk and vegan sources of calcium
During the first year of a baby’s life it is recommended that the main milk drink should remain either breast or formula milk. Unsweetened calcium-fortified soya milk, nut milks, oat or coconut milk can be used in cooking but not as baby’s main milk drink. The same advice applies to babies drinking cow’s milk – i.e. you can cook with it from 6 months but it should not be offered as a drink until 1 year. It is important to note that you should not give rice milk to children under five-years-old as it has been shown to contain traces of arsenic. I wasn’t aware of this so it’s good to know!
Milk aside, good plant-based sources of calcium include chia seeds, broccoli, artichoke, almond butter and beans.
For more examples of plant-based sources of calcium see One Green Planet http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/10-dairy-free-foods-packed-with-calcium/.
Plant-based protein and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
An article on vegan food wouldn’t be complete without a heading on protein!
Good plant-based sources of protein for babies include quinoa, beans and lentils, and foods made from them – such as tofu, hummus and soya mince. Seeds and finely ground nuts or smooth nut butter are also good sources. I have bought a pack of pre-ground Brazil nuts, walnuts and flaxseed (linseed), which also provides plenty of omega-3 fatty acids. This is great as it can easily be stirred into other foods – at the moment I’m adding it to her morning porridge! Other sources of omega-3 include rapeseed oil, soya-based foods, such as tofu and chia seeds (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-plant-sources-of-omega-3s). It’s not safe to give children younger than 5 years old whole nuts, as they could choke.
For other essential fatty acids avocado, olive oil, pumpkin seeds and coconut oil offer good sources. Florence loves avocado and it’s so easy to prepare!
Vegan sources of iron
As with protein, there is often concern about vegans not getting enough iron. Good plant-based sources include dark green vegetables, beans, chickpeas and lentils, fortified cereals, brown rice and dried fruit, such as apricots, figs and prunes (although it is better to offer these with meals, rather than as a snack between meals, to help prevent tooth decay and remember that they are high in sugar).
Adding sources of vitamin C may also help your child to increase the amount of iron they absorb from foods. Foods rich in vitamin C include sweet potato (a firm favourite here), pepper, broccoli (also great finger food), cabbage, kiwi fruits, oranges, strawberries, pineapple and grapefruit.
Overall, I feel so much more confident about my daughter getting all of the nutrients she needs from plant-based sources with the added bonus of a multivitamin supplement.