Vegan Breastfeeding: What to Know￼
Vegan Breastfeeding: What Should You Know?
Without a doubt, human breast milk is the perfect nutrition source for an infant. Breast milk is referred to as the gold standard for infant nutrition. It strikes a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fat, water, and other nutrients. It’s easily digested and absorbed, and its composition naturally changes as a baby’s developmental needs change.
Breast milk is also rich in antibodies, it helps to build a baby’s immune system, and seems to support establishment of health-supporting bacteria in a baby’s digestive tract. But does following a vegan diet impact the breast milk that you feed your child?
Read on to find out everything you need to know about vegan breastfeeding and lactation including safety, common issues, supplementation, and diet plan.
Fluids Are Super Important
As a nursing mother, you need to drink A LOT of water (approximately 16 cups per day!). It might be hard to believe, but your body needs to compensate for all the extra water that is used to make breast milk.
Water can come from food, beverages, and plain drinking water. A great tip to help you get the fluids you need is to drink a large glass of water each time you breastfeed your baby.
What About Caffeine?
Drinking small amounts of caffeine throughout the day is unlikely to affect your nursing newborn’s sleep patterns. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends up to 200 mg a day, which amounts to either two small cups of coffee or one 12-ounce cup a day and is the same level okayed during pregnancy.
Feel free to contact me if you have concerns about your caffeine intake while breastfeeding. As a vegan pregnancy and lactation dietitian, I am here to help you adapt your plant-based nutrition according to your cravings.
Drinking Alcohol While Nursing
If you breastfeed, it’s best to abstain from alcohol or discuss it first with a health care provider. If your baby is over 3 months of age and their breastfeeding schedule is well established, consistent, and predictable, it may be possible to consume a single alcoholic drink, provided you wait at least 2 hours (or longer) before breastfeeding again.
Protein Needs Increase
While breastfeeding, an extra 11g of protein per day is recommended (vs. the extra 6g per day recommended during pregnancy). Once you have been breastfeeding for six months, the need decreases to 8 extra grams of protein per day.
Good sources of plant-based protein include beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy products, peanuts, cashew nuts, pistachio nuts, chia seeds, ground flax seed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, quinoa, and wild rice.
Eating lots of beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground flax seed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and quinoa will also help meet your increased zinc requirements.
General Guide for Vegan Breastfeeding Mothers
NUMBER OF SERVINGS
4 ½ – 6
1 – 2
Nutrients of Concern for Vegan Breastfeeding
It is super important that vegan mothers continue to consume a reliable source of vitamin B12 while breastfeeding. Babies require this nutrient for the normal development of brain, nerve, and blood cells. An infant’s supply of vitamin B12 through breast milk comes from the mother’s diet, not her body stores.
While breastfeeding, a vegan mother should do one of the following:
- Daily supplement of at least 25 mcg of vitamin B12
- Take a minimum of 1000 mcg of B12 two or three times per week.
- Eat three B12-fortified food in a day. Each portion should be at least 25% of the daily value. I still recommend supplementing lightly with this option.
Lack of vitamin B12 can impair the infant’s brain development and cause neurological problems. To be as safe as possible, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) suggests that vegan infants receive a daily vitamin B12 supplement (10 mcg) from birth.
Compared to pregnancy, a mother’s iron requirement drops dramatically while breastfeeding. The RDA for a lactating vegan mother is 9 mg. Iron present in breast milk is generally well absorbed by the baby, but some newborns may still need iron supplements.
Typically, a newborn’s iron stores start to run low around 4-6 months of age. Full-term breastfed infants may be given iron drops as a supplement starting at 4 months of age until enough iron-rich foods are introduced (around 6-8 months of age).
The recommended intake for zinc is higher during lactation vs. pregnancy. A vegan breastfeeding mother needs 13 mg/day until her baby is 4 months old, and then it decreases to 9.5 mg/day until she stops breastfeeding. Mothers must make it a priority to include zinc-rich foods in their diet. Some examples include fortified breakfast cereals, beans, and nuts.
The calcium requirement for breastfeeding mothers is nearly 80% more than the general requirement for adults, so make sure to include plenty of calcium-rich foods in your daily diet, such as calcium-fortified foods and calcium-set tofu.
The RDA for calcium stays constant during pregnancy and lactation (1000 mg/day). A mother may pass some of her own stored calcium (from her bones) to her baby. This isn’t overly concerning since bone mineral content is usually restored after weaning.
The RDA for lactating mothers remains steady at 15 mcg (600 IU). Requirements are generally higher during winter months because access to sunshine is limited. During winter, a breastfeeding mom should take 50 mcg/day (2000 IU) to meet her own body’s needs.
Breast milk is typically low in vitamin D, which means that a newborn baby should receive their own vitamin D supplement directly (in the form of drops), starting soon after birth. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends 10 mcg (400 IU) for the first 12 months of life and 15 mcg (600 IU) thereafter.
Research suggests that DHA plays an important role in the mental and visual development of infants. Taking a microalgae-derived DHA supplement might help to boost the DHA level of breast milk. The amount recommended by most experts is 200 to 300 mg of DHA per day. A combination of DHA and EPA is also suitable.
Sample Menu for Vegan Breastfeeding Mother
1 cup (250 ml) fortified breakfast cereal
1 slice whole wheat toast
1 medium orange or other fruit
½ cup (125 ml) carrot sticks
¼ cup (60 ml) hummus
Sandwich made with ½ cup (125 ml) seasoned tofu, 2 slices whole grain bread and lettuce
2 cups (500 ml) tossed salad with 1 whole avocado
2 figs or another choice of fruit
2 tbsp. (30 ml) almonds, peanuts, or sunflower seeds
1 cup (250 ml) fortified soy milk
1 cup (250 ml) beans (such as black, red, or pinto)
¾ cup (185 ml) baked sweet potato
½ to 1 cup (125 to 250 ml) cooked kale with lemon juice
1 cup (250 ml) tomato slices
Other Postpartum Matters for Vegans
Getting Back to Your Pre-Baby Body
A vegan diet is a great help in supporting a gradual return to pre-pregnancy weight. Women lose, on average, 1.75 pounds (0.8 kg) per month during the first six months after birth.
Please remember that rapid weight loss or losing more than 2.2 lbs (1 kg) per month is not recommended while breastfeeding, because severe restrictions in calories and nutrient intake can affect the milk supply.
Maintain a healthy weight for you and your baby by finding ways to gradually include movement into your daily routine; walking is a great choice!
Lack of Time
Preparing elaborate meals and snacks (or any meals at all), on top of all the new responsibilities that come along with motherhood (not to mention the sleep deprivation!), can feel very daunting. Fear not, healthy meals do not have to be fancy.
A nutritious meal can be as simple as a bowl of cereal and fruit with non-dairy milk; crackers with peanut butter and an apple; or a baked potato (cooked in the microwave!) and a salad with black beans or chickpeas sprinkled on top.
Important Vegan Breastfeeding Tips to Keep in Mind
- Drink plenty of fluid.
- Breastfeeding requires extra protein and zinc, so make sure that your meals contain good sources, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and quinoa.
- The calcium requirement for breastfeeding mothers is nearly 80% more than the general requirement for adults, so make sure to include plenty of calcium-rich foods in your daily diet, such as calcium-fortified foods and calcium-set tofu.
- Ensure a reliable intake of vitamin B12 from fortified foods or a supplement.
- Take a daily supplement containing vitamin D.
- Consider microalgae omega-3 fat supplementation.
Is Breast Milk Vegan?
The short answer is: Yes.
The long answer is that there are 3 main components to consider when answering this question and they all come back to your reason for being vegan:
If you’re a dietary vegan, especially for health reasons, rest assured that your breast milk is the healthiest food you can offer your baby.
Moreover, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics finds a vegan diet healthy at all stages of life, including during lactation, as long as certain nutrients that are lacking in vegan diets, including vitamin B12, are supplemented.
So, you can continue your vegan lifestyle while breastfeeding on top of knowing your milk is vegan and healthy for your baby.
Perhaps the most well-known authority on veganism, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), agrees. According to the organization, there’s no moral dilemma when it comes to human breast milk for human babies.
Breastfeeding your baby is inherently an act of compassion and consent.
Environmental veganism is all about sustainability and the environmental impact our food choices have. You may have heard jokes about the cost-benefit analysis of exclusive breastfeeding, insofar as breastfeeding is FREE food for your baby (as long as you decide to do it!). Well, it’s true, and it really doesn’t get more economically sustainable than that. And because you produce breast milk (supply) as long as your baby breastfeeds (demand) without draining other resources, it’s environmentally sustainable as well!
Final Thoughts on Vegan Breastfeeding
Your main priorities when following a vegan diet are usually to eat in a way that meets your nutritional needs, aligns with your personal values, and satisfies your taste preferences. But when breastfeeding, you have the added concern of making sure that what you’re eating will also provide adequate nutrition for your child.
Experts agree that vegan moms can definitely breastfeed successfully as long as they are getting all their key nutrients. So, make sure to incorporate enough iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc into your diet and your baby will be just fine.
If you want to work together towards optimizing your vegan diet while breastfeeding, please do not hesitate to reach out for an appointment. As a plant-based nutritionist, I am here to help you create a healthy approach to veganism during every stage of life.