Recently I got a message from a blog reader asking if I had any vegan breastfeeding tips for her vegan mom-to-be relative. That’s when it hit me – I’ve never talked about my breastfeeding journey here on the blog, even though my daughter is almost two!
So today I’m going to set the record straight, and share what my vegan breastfeeding experience was like.
“But wait… is breast milk vegan?” Yes it is! While vegans go against consuming milk that comes from other species (and is most likely taken from them without their consent), it’s perfectly vegan for humans to breastfeed their human babies. Each mammal’s milk is perfectly tailored to fit the needs of their young. See more info on this topic here.
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When I recently googled “vegan breastfeeding stories”, I was surprised to see that a lot of articles that popped up were some scary stories about malnourished vegan babies, and how vegans should rethink their idea of raising their kids vegan.
At the same time, I’ve known lots of vegan families, my own included, where children have been vegan and successfully breastfed from birth. I feel like most of these stories never reach the surface of mainstream public awareness, so it’s up to us to start changing that.
My vegan nursing journey had a lot of ups and downs, but if I take away the inconveniences and sleepless nights, I’ll admit that I enjoyed it a lot. It was a wonderful bonding experience for me and my daughter. But when the time came to say goodbye to it, it turned out that we both were ready.
When I got an idea for this post, I thought about just following the timeline of our breastfeeding story. But since I have a tendency to ramble and miss important points, I decided to arrange this post as a Q & A with most commonly asked questions that cover various aspects of our nursing timeline.
To see nutritional needs of vegan breastfeeding mothers, KEEP READING.
To jump to the part about my OWN vegan breastfeeding experience, CLICK HERE.
- What are the nutritional needs of vegan breastfeeding mothers?
- Is it OK to raise kids vegan?
- How long did you breastfeed your daughter?
- Did you follow a special diet as a vegan breastfeeding mom?
- Did you take any supplements to support breast milk production?
- How often did you breastfeed?
- Exclusive breastfeeding vs the bottle – what’s better?
- What did breastfeeding look like when your daughter started eating solids?
- Why did you decide to stop breastfeeding?
- Would you recommend breastfeeding to every vegan mom?
What are the nutritional needs of vegan breastfeeding mothers?
All new mothers have certain nutrient needs to make sure their breastmilk delivers proper nutrition to their babies without wreaking havoc on their own bodies.
Every breastfeeding mama (including vegan and vegetarian mothers) needs to make sure her diet has enough iron, calcium, healthy fats (especially the omega-3 DHA fatty acid), folate, vitamin C, and vitamin B12.
Some of these important nutrients are harder to come by in plants compared to animal foods.
This means that a new mom who follows a vegan or a vegetarian diet needs to make sure she eats certain foods PLUS takes the right supplements to keep her nutrient needs in check.
(Before I proceed, please note that I’m not professionally trained in nutrition. All of the tips in this article are for informational purposes only, and do not substitute professional medical advice.)
Babies need iron for proper growth and development. Human milk – their main source of nutrition – contains small amounts of iron that comes directly from the mother’s body.
But even small amounts of iron add up over time, which can make vegan mothers become iron-deficient. The symptoms may include low energy, poor cognitive functioning, and even stress. (Source)
That’s why both babies and their moms need to make sure they get plenty of iron through their diet.
Here’s the good news when it comes to babies: they are born with iron stored in their bodies, so infants don’t need a lot of additional iron in their diet right away. (Source)
The bad news: as babies get older, their iron stores become depleted. To avoid iron deficiency, it’s recommended that young children start eating iron-rich foods and/or take an iron supplement at 4-6 months.
Breastfeeding mothers need to get 9-10 mg of iron per day. Babies 7-11 months old need 11 mg of iron a day. (Source)
Good sources of iron that both breastfeeding moms and their kids should include in their diet: beans, lentils, dark green vegetables (kale, bok choy, turnip greens, etc.), pumpkin seeds (pureed for babies), potatoes with skin, oyster mushrooms, etc. (Source)
Calcium is important for babies to build strong bones and teeth. It also helps their muscles and nervous system to work properly.
Pregnant women and nursing moms are recommended to get up to 1,300 mg of calcium a day. (Source). Babies need to get 200 mg of calcium a day up to 6 months, and 260 mg from 6 to 11 months.
Calcium-rich foods include soy products (calcium-set tofu, tempeh, edamame), calcium-fortified orange juice, legumes, sesame seeds, chia seeds, dark leafy greens (cabbage, broccoli, bok choy).
If you aren’t sure you’re getting enough calcium through food, calcium supplements can be useful. However, not all of them are made equal. As a rule of thumb, calcium that comes from food is absorbed better than calcium from supplements.
If you must take a supplement though, make sure to look for the amount of “elemental calcium” on the label – that’s the actual calcium amount absorbed by our bodies. (Source)
There are two main types of calcium supplements – calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. The first one contains more elemental calcium, but needs to be taken with food. Both are absorbed best if taken with vitamin D3.
(Vitamin D3 isn’t always vegan, so when you’re shopping for a calcium + D3 supplement, make sure it’s vegan like this one from Amazon.)
Healthy fats are an important part of a balanced diet both during pregnancy and breastfeeding. They help develop the baby’s brain, nervous system and eyes before birth and after. (Source) As an important part of a healthy diet, they also help in absorption of fat-soluble essential vitamins like A, D, E and K.
The term “healthy fats” usually stands for unsaturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats.
Good plant-based sources of healthy fats: avocados, walnuts, flax seeds, olive oil, seaweed.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS. Alpha-linoleic (ALA), eicosapentaenoic (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are three types of omega-3 fatty acids essential for infant’s growth and development.
A number of plant foods (see above) are rich in ALA, but DHA and EPA can only be found in fatty fish and algae.
Since vegans don’t eat fish, vegan breastfeeding mothers need to add omega-3 DHA to their diet through supplements.
Today you can easily find vegan-friendly DHA supplements derived from purified algae. During the times of my own pregnancy and breastfeeding I used this supplement that had all three omega-3 acids.
Folate and folic acid are two forms of vitamin B9. Folate is particularly important during early stages of pregnancy to make sure the embryo’s neural tubes develop properly (this prevents serious birth defects).
It is recommended that pregnant women and breastfeeding moms take up to 600 micrograms of vitamin B9 every day. (Source)
NOTE: Folate is a natural form of vitamin B9 (absorbs easier in our bodies), and folic acid is synthetically derived (less efficient absorption). (Source)
Keep this in mind when selecting a vitamin B9 supplement.
Vegan foods naturally rich in folate: dark green leafy vegetables, asparagus, avocados, citrus fruit, beans, lentils.
Vitamin B12 supports proper brain development and red blood cell production. Babies get their B12 through placenta before birth, and through their mother’s milk after.
Women and children following a vegan lifestyle are at risk of becoming deficient in vitamin B12 because it is mainly found in animal products. In rare cased long-term deficiency in infants and adults can lead to brain and nerve damage. (Source)
Plant-based sources of vitamin B12: fortified nutritional yeast, fortified breakfast cereals, soy products (soy milk, tempeh), nori seaweed, fortified plant milks.
In addition to eating these foods, breastfeeding vegan moms should consider a plant-based vitamin B-12 supplement both for themselves and for their babies 6 months of age and up. This one in drop form, or this one in gummy form are suitable both for adults and kids according to the manufacturer.
Is it OK to raise kids vegan?
Yes – if properly planned. According to the American Dietetic Association:
“…[A]ppropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
How long did you breastfeed your daughter?
I breastfed baby J until just a week short of her 18-month birthday. Originally I planned to breastfeed her until she turned 1 – that’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. Once we got to that point, we just continued our routine and breastfed for another (almost) 6 months.
I’ve heard of other vegan (and non-vegan) moms who continue breastfeeding well past the age of one. That’s wonderful if it works both for the mom and the child, but I don’t think we have to force ourselves to go on or feel judged if it doesn’t.
If you found my blog while looking for information and tips for vegan parents and kids, check out my post with 20+ vegan parenting resources, from vegan nutrition guides for kids to useful books, magazines, websites, etc.
Did you follow a special diet as a vegan breastfeeding mom?
I didn’t do anything specific to support my ability to breastfeed as a vegan, and followed my body’s cues instead. In the first months I was craving fattier foods like nuts, peanut butter, avocados, etc. – I’m assuming that was happening because my body needed extra fat for milk production.
Whenever I pumped out some milk and put it in the fridge, I would notice that it formed a pretty thick layer of fat on top after a few hours. My daughter loved it, and went on to double her weight in about three months after birth drinking my milk exclusively.
There are lists of plant-based foods on the internet that are supposed to help with milk production. When I looked them up, I found out that I had been eating a few of them already: oatmeal every morning, fenugreek in my Indian-inspired dishes, a side of sweet potatoes and fresh vegetables here and there.
I found a few recipes for vegan lactation cookies on Pinterest and made a few. Most called for ingredients like oats, flaxseed, powdered brewer’s yeast (I used this brand), etc. While these cookies were delicious, I can’t say that I saw much difference in my milk production.
It turns out that diet is highly unlikely to affect a woman’s ability to produce breast milk: there are plenty of vegan moms who have no lactation problems at all, and non-vegan moms who do experience issue with milk production.
If a woman struggles to make enough milk for her baby (or is unable to produce any milk at all), it’s more likely to be happening because of her hormonal levels, hereditary issues, etc., and not because of her diet.
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Did you take any supplements to support breast milk production?
About 5 months later I noticed that my milk supply became less abundant (in fact it just evened out). A friend recommended supplementing with these fenugreek capsules that she had successfully used herself to get more milk when nursing her son.
I took them for about half a year, and my milk supply was sufficient for my daughter’s needs. I can’t vouch for how much that had to do with the supplementation, but as long as my baby was happy, I was happy too.
How often did you breastfeed?
For the first 6 months I nursed my daughter on demand, day or night. She wanted to eat every 2-3 hours during the day, a bit less during the night.
When baby J’s 4-month sleep regression hit, she would wake up every hour after about 11 pm, and since she didn’t know yet how to fall back asleep without the boob, I’d go and nurse her every time (I don’t miss that sleep deprivation at all! 🙂 ).
After my first 6 months of parenthood I realized that I needed to get us on a daily schedule, or else I would have lost my mind. So we worked out a following schedule:
- Wake-up time: nursing
- 1-2 hours of interacting, playing, etc.
- Before 1st nap: nursing
- After 1st nap: lunch (we introduced solid foods at 6 months)
- Interacting, playing, taking a walk
- Before 2nd nap: nursing
- After 2nd nap: nursing (if baby J asked)
- More playing before dinner
- Dinner with family
- At bedtime: nursing
- During the night: nursing 1-2 times or more
So on average we did about 6-7 breastfeeding sessions a day in addition to solid foods from 6 months to about a year when baby J started going to daycare 2 times a week. At that time I rolled back pre-nap nursing sessions, and in a couple months she dropped the morning session as well.
Towards 16-17 months we only breastfed post-nap, before bedtime and during the night.
Also see: 15 kid friendly vegan recipes from the blog that my now 2 year-old daughter loves.
Exclusive breastfeeding vs the bottle – what’s better?
If you do your research, you’ll come across two opposing schools of thought with strong opinions on why their method is best.
The proponents of exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) believe that feeding a baby via breast exclusively forms a stronger bond between the mother and her child, helps the baby feel more secure and possibly more confident in the future, etc.
Plus, human breastmilk is considered to be superior to formula for a variety of reasons.
Bottle feeding advocates make a case that using a bottle (with breastmilk or infant formula, or both) makes the mom’s life easier since she doesn’t have to be the only one responsible for feeding the child.
This comes in handy during long sleepless nights, or if the mom leaves the baby with another caregiver.
These two schools of thought often clash, which results in heated online discussions between their followers. I don’t want to take sides because I was kind of following both approaches at the same time. Plus, I don’t want to be ostracized by the vegan mom community who often happen to favor EBF.
However, it’s important for me to point out one thing.
Judging someone because they are bottle-feeding and/or formula-feeding their child is problematic because it doesn’t take into consideration that person’s circumstances.
What if they are bottle feeding because they had to go back to work since they can’t afford to stay home?
What if they are formula-feeding because they are working lower-paying jobs where the opportunity to use a breast pump can be nonexistent?
What if they have a long daily commute that makes it hard to find a chance to pump, or to transport pumped milk back home safely?
So unless we know the full story, let’s not judge. Better yet, let’s not judge even if we don’t know the full story 🙂
In my own case, I had the opportunity to stay home with baby J after her birth, doing some part-time work from home when she was napping. This gave me a chance to exclusively breastfeed, even though it wasn’t my goal.
I personally wasn’t opposed to the idea of using both the breast and the bottle with expressed breastmilk to feed my daughter (no judgement for people who use formula though).
However, baby J had other plans: she never warmed up to the idea of drinking out of the bottle no matter how much we tried. As a result, I had to be available to feed her ALL. THE. TIME.
In the (almost) 18 months of our breastfeeding journey, there have been only a handful of nights when I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night, or days when I could leave the house for a few hours by myself. Needless to say, I was exhausted and often felt trapped.
In the end, I came to a conclusion that the combination of the breast and the bottle would probably work best if we ever decided to have another child.
(By the way, in case you’re wondering why I was pumping if my daughter wasn’t drinking from a bottle: for a few I was donating some of my breastmilk to another mom in my community.)
If you decided to take the exclusive pumping route but aren’t sure where to start, take a look at this online class for exclusive pumping created by my friend Stacey, a certified lactation educator and founder of Milkology.org.
Stacey also offers an online breastfeeding course that helps new moms and moms-to-be learn everything they need to know to make their breastfeeding experience successful.
What did breastfeeding look like when your daughter started eating solids?
At 6 months, we started introducing first solid foods into baby J’s diet. At first I made some loose purees of steamed and mashed vegetables and fruit mixed with breastmilk (butternut squash, zucchini, bananas).
Over the course of a few weeks, I scaled down the amount of milk I was mixing in, and made the purees thicker. Soon baby J was able to feed herself a variety of foods I prepared for her, baby-led weaning-style. See my easy vegan baby food recipes for examples of those foods.
I also started giving her a vitamin B3 supplement, and sprinkling vitamin B12-fortified nutritional yeast on her foods.
At first, we only gave baby J the solids for dinner, so she still heavily depended on breastmilk for most of her nutrition. By 10 months, she was eating solids for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and nursed following the schedule I posted above.
Towards the end of our breastfeeding journey, at 15-17 months, our nursing sessions were mostly for our bonding rather than for providing her with more nutrition. Baby J liked drinking whatever little bit of milk I still had, and I enjoyed cuddling with her knowing that our nursing days would soon be over.
Why did you decide to stop breastfeeding?
In a perfect world, I would have loved to continue nursing baby J until she turned two. In reality, soon after her first birthday I started seeing more and more signs suggesting that we should stop.
First, baby J’s dependence on my constant presence was becoming more and more inconvenient for both of us. Our “booby time” was a crutch that held her independence and coping skills back. Don’t even start me on her abilities to sleep through the night 🙂
Also, I was concerned that, if I ever had an emergency that would make me leave for a day or two, she would get stressed beyond belief.
Second, I noticed that both my physical and mental health started getting shaky. I was losing weight, my hair was falling out more than usual, I had pain in my wrists. I had a hard time managing my depression despite taking an antidepressant.
While I can’t prove a connection between the lactation hormones and their ability to affect my health, I noticed that most of these symptoms have subsided 2-3 months after I stopped nursing.
Third, our breastfeeding routine came to a grinding halt shortly before baby J’s 18-month birthday when our entire family came down with a stomach bug.
Baby J must have contracted it at her daycare, and got sick a couple days before Rob and I did. She had a particularly bad night when no food or water would stay in her stomach for any length of time. Thankfully, it was all over in about a day.
Then Rob and I woke up in the middle of the night, racing each other to the bathroom to throw up. This hasn’t happened to us in many years – definitely longer than we’ve been vegan. Just like with baby J, this lasted for a day, and then things went back to normal.
Since we still had our nursing routine going, and since baby J was back to feeling ok, I was breastfeeding her as usual. However, she threw up again for two nights in a row, even though she was doing fine during the day.
That’s when I had a thought that maybe some of that stomach bug was still in my system, and that she was getting it all over again through my breastmilk (our biggest nursing session was happening before her bedtime).
Because I had been thinking of quitting breastfeeding anyway (see my first and second reasons), this led me to consider doing it that night.
I knew that baby J was going to be inconsolable about not having her “booby time” before bed. But I would have rather gone through that with her once and for good than go back to breastfeeding in a couple days, just to wean her again in a few weeks or months.
It was an emotional time for both baby J and I (I wrote about it on Instagram), but it took us less than a week to develop a new bedtime routine that didn’t include nursing, and that both baby J and I were content with.
Would you recommend breastfeeding to every vegan mom?
Yes and no.
Yes – because it’s definitely the best way to provide optimal nutrition to your baby starting from birth. Each mom’s breast milk is specifically produced to meet whatever nutritional needs her baby is currently having.
Baby needs more fat? Mom will be making fattier milk. Mom is fighting a cold? Her milk will supply the protective antibodies to her baby to help the baby stay healthy.
It goes without saying that breastfeeding is also easier and cheaper than formula feeding, plus it helps mom and baby have that special “me time” – something I really cherished, especially towards the end of our breastfeeding journey.
No – because each mom has the right to decide what’s going to work best for her and her baby AND not feel judged for her choice.
If a mom decides to forgo breastfeeding in favor of the bottle, whatever her reasoning is (not being able to produce breast milk or not producing enough; going back to work and being overwhelmed by pumping in the workplace; experiencing physical and/or mental health complications due to the hormonal changes, etc.) – that’s her right.
As much as I would like to call my own breastfeeding story a success, I have to admit that I was fighting postpartum depression for at least half a year after baby J’s birth, and postpartum anxiety for the rest of the time I breastfed.
That was putting a big dent into my ability to enjoy motherhood. While I can’t prove with a 100% certainty that these mental health problems were connected to breastfeeding hormones, I can attest that only a few days after we stopped nursing, my anxiety reduced dramatically. Even my husband Rob noticed the change.
A couple weeks later, I caught myself thinking that I was now enjoying motherhood more than I ever did before.
I was finally looking forward to picking her up from daycare (she goes three mornings a week), and waiting for her to wake up from her naps. I’ll admit that just a few months before that I often dreaded those moments…
This being said, I know I’m lucky that my postpartum mental health disorders were fairly easy to manage (medication and therapy helped), and that I was still able to function normally in my day-to-day life.
However, not all moms with postpartum depression have that luck… If the depression is caused by the same hormones that help a woman produce milk, then quitting breastfeeding can definitely be the right choice in an attempt to avoid tragedy.
This may be a somewhat odd conclusion to make after exclusively breastfeeding my own daughter for almost 18 months, but now I think that there’s nothing wrong if a mom decides not to breastfeed her child for her own reasons, whatever they may be, and use formula instead.
So hopefully you have a better idea now about what my vegan breastfeeding journey was like. If you have any more questions, please let me know!
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