Myth #2: Even if you manage a vegan pregnancy and breastfeeding, there is nothing to replace breast milk with without cow's milk
Well, the first part is true anyway: there is nothing to replace breast milk with. Why would there be? Humans existed long before cows were milked and humans continue to survive and reproduce successfully all over the world in places where cow's milk is not available. The idea that any animal would require the milk of another species to thrive past infancy is clearly absurd if you think about it for a few minutes — certainly, in nature, no other animal drinks its mother's milk past early childhood, let alone the milk of another animal. We are mammals, and, like all mammals, our infants survive and thrive on the milk of our own species until gradually transitioning to eating the food that the adults of our species eat. This transition seems quite logical to me and occurred very naturally for us. Before sharing the details of that transition, I'll say a few words about breastfeeding vs. formula, and cow's milk.
Breastfeeding is the nutritionally ideal way to feed an infant, and I believe that's pretty universally acknowledged at this point, all politics aside. It provides various important things that formula can't, such as immune factors, and has the flexibility to adjust to the needs of the moment, changing composition at various times of day, during the feeding, as your child ages incrementally, and based on gender. Note that I said it's ideal; it's not the only way or I wouldn't have survived to adulthood! There are man-made infant formulas available, both soy- and cow's milk-based. Often they cause allergic reactions, and of course I would never recommend introducing cow's milk protein to your infant's delicate gut and immune system, whether by consuming it yourself and breastfeeding or with formula. In my extensive reading I've come across some clear and disturbing links between cow's milk consumption in infancy and childhood and later leukemia, autoimmune disease, and allergies. For this reason, I would recommend that if you don't breastfeed to explore getting vegan donor milk or using soy formula if possible.
Now for the mechanics of feeding the vegan baby; again, this is an area of being vegan that seems to require special effort only because we never see it happening! My experience has been straightforward. Derek and I eat a whole foods plant-based diet based on bananas, sweet potatoes, oats, and lentils for calories (with a lot of extra fruits and vegetables) and these happen to be perfect baby foods. In this case, there's minimal fretting over when certain foods can be introduced, over food safety, and no awkward moments of trying to explain to a toddler why some of the foods in the house are "bad" and some are "good". Everything that is available to him, any food choice that he could make, is good!
Miles will turn two this month — he still nurses but now gets most of his calories from solid foods. Here is how this transition worked for us:
When he was 6 months old, we determined that he was ready for solid foods based on his interest in what we were eating and his developing motor skills. I searched online for some guidelines on when to introduce various foods, and initially followed those recommendations, waiting a few days before introducing any new foods to determine if he would have an allergic reaction. Unsurprisingly, he had none so I gradually relaxed the rules as I became more comfortable feeding him. We first offered him banana mashed with breast milk. It was a smashing success. Over the next few weeks we tried other foods such as avocado and sweet potatoes. "Baby cereal" was not something I ever fed him, nor was anything else out of a package. All of those jars, boxes, and squeeze pouches are comfortingly labeled with "stages" and spare parents the effort of figuring out what to feed a child...but wait a minute, why shouldn't you give something so important some thought and effort? I also think that feeding your child unrecognizable food that in no way resembles what you eat only makes the transition to adult food more confusing for both of you. It is easier, cheaper, and more nutritious (when you eat a whole food plant-based diet) to share what you already eat with your baby, modifying the texture as necessary until they can handle the food in solid form.
For us, this meant mashed or blended bananas, sweet potatoes, and other fruits at first. Within a couple of months, Miles was able to take bites of whole bananas or sweet potatoes and required no mashing or pureeing of these soft foods. Gradually he ate more of the things we ate as he expressed an interest in them, like lentil soup, oatmeal, white beans, and tofu. He goes through phases, just like all people do, in which he prefers one food to all others or can't stand something he loved yesterday. This is no problem for us — his available choices are not between fruit and candy, or between kale and hot dogs, for example, but between one fruit or vegetable and another. His instincts about what his body needs, or when he is hungry or full, have never been damaged by an overload of processed foods so I can trust his choices — we never argue about food and there is no coercion involved in our mealtimes.
We are not 100% perfect, forbidding Miles anything that is not in whole plant form. He sometimes has vegan animal crackers at preschool, and a few bites of our desserts when we go out. I waited until after he was a year old to allow him some of those foods — before that we didn't have them around. Don't think you have to be perfect, but on the other hand, don't think you can eat foods that are forbidden to your children without seriously undermining your credibility with them!
This is part one of a three-part series on vegan pregnancy and parenting that will appear here, and you can find more about my experience, diet, and feeding Miles at www.veganmuscleandfitness.com. I am sharing only my personal experience with you, but healthy vegan mothers, children, and families of all types are out there! I encourage you to read some additional inspiring stories of vegan children here!
Further resources include this article on raising plant-strong kids from the folks at Engine 2, Disease-Proof Your Child by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition by Julieanna Hever