If you’re a vegan parent, you may find your choice to breastfeed gets questioned by non-vegans. Some people will try to argue that, because breast milk is technically a dairy product, it’s not a vegan food. If you yourself follow a vegan lifestyle, you’ll probably roll your eyes at this.
Veganism isn’t about technical definitions, but about health, environmental concerns, and animal welfare. Breast milk is perfectly compatible with your vegan lifestyle and is the best food for your baby. You can safely breast-feed your infant without worrying that you’re compromising your values.
Is breast milk vegan? Yes, it is. While human breast milk is certainly milk, it’s entirely compatible with vegan values. No animals are harmed or exploited in its production and there is no environmental impact to worry about. It’s also safe and healthy, making it acceptable from the dietary vegan viewpoint.
You’ve arrived on this page because you are planning to breast or chest-feed, or someone close to you is. You have concerns about the compatibility of breast-feeding with your vegan lifestyle. Is breast milk vegan? Can a vegan ethically breast feed their baby? Is donor milk vegan? Will my baby still be vegan if I breast-feed? Is breast milk really as safe and healthy as everyone says? What should I do if my baby is lactose intolerant? Are there safe breast milk alternatives for vegans? Keep reading, because we’ve got the answers that you’re looking for. Whatever your reason for being vegan, you’ll find the information you need.
Is breast milk vegan?
Yes. By any reasonable definition of vegan, breast milk is fine. While some people might argue that vegans shouldn’t breast feed, you almost never hear this from actual vegans. Non-vegans sometimes like to play “gotcha” games, identifying elements in a vegan’s diet or lifestyle that they can single out as incompatible. You can safely ignore this. There are many different reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle, and breast-feeding is okay with all of them.
For dietary vegans, the lifestyle is all about health and well-being. You know that meat, eggs, dairy products and other animal-derived foods just aren’t as good for us as plant-based alternatives. You’ve chosen to excise them from your diet and substitute healthy plant-based foods instead. You want your baby to enjoy the same healthy lifestyle. Nothing could be safer or more natural than breast milk — it’s the best thing for your baby. You can nurse your little one, safe in the knowledge that you’re giving them the best possible start in life.
Maybe you were motivated to become a vegan because you’re concerned for the environment. You know that the production of eggs, milk and especially meat has deleterious effects on the environment, consuming excessive resources and relying on environmentally unsafe substances and practices. If this is your motivation, then breast-feeding is the best possible option. It doesn’t require any food production at all, since you’re making the food yourself. It could not be more environmentally sustainable.
The majority of vegans adopt this lifestyle out of an interest in animal rights. If, like me, you’re primarily concerned with animal welfare, there’s no question that breast is best. Absolutely no animals are harmed or exploited when you breast-feed your baby. You’re producing the milk yourself, not taking it from an animal.
In short, nothing could be more vegan than breast-feeding.
Is donor breast milk vegan?
With the best will in the world, breast feeding is not always possible. For people who work long hours and have to be away from their babies, it can be tricky to feed as often as they’d like. Pumping is an option but it doesn’t work for everyone. A parent’s breast milk supply can be impacted by all sorts of things: ill-health, stress, hormonal problems and other issues can all affect your milk supply. Sometimes parent and baby have to be apart because one or other of them is hospitalised.
Donor milk can be a solution for these issues. Breast milk can be given directly by a wet-nurse, or pumped and stored to be given to infants when the parent can’t feed. This can be a great option for ensuring optimal nutrition for the infant. But is donor breast milk vegan?
Yes. Milk given or sold by a willing human donor is not the same as milk obtained from an animal that can’t decide whether it wants to be milked or not. Donor milk is just fine for any vegan, as long as the donor is not being exploited in any way. Since donation is a voluntary and informed process, it’s completely different from the production of cow or other animal milks.
What if my baby can’t have breast milk?
Sometimes a parent can’t breast or chest feed and no donor milk is available. In other cases, a baby might have a condition that makes them react badly to human breast milk. In my experience, vegan kids and children born to vegan parents tend to have fewer food intolerances than kids raised on a conventional diet. Sometimes, though, a baby will just be unable to process breast milk, or will suffer allergic reactions to it. While it’s generally better tolerated by an infant’s delicate digestion than animal milks, breast milk can still trigger reactions in a tiny minority of infants.
If your baby is diagnosed with a condition that makes giving them breast milk impossible, there are plant-based alternatives. Infant formula based on animal milk probably won’t be any better tolerated than breast milk, so it’s fine to skip these and go straight for plant milks.
Don’t try to give your baby the same soya, oat or nut milks that you drink. These are not formulated for infants. They often contain ingredients that aren’t great for delicate new babies, and lack the vital nutrients babies require to be healthy. Choose infant formulas that are made specifically for babies.
In the following section, we’ll take a closer look at some plant-based milks and discover why they might not be so great for your baby.
Plant-based alternatives to breast milk
You’ve tried absolutely everything. You can’t breast feed, you can’t give your infant donor milk, and now you need a good alternative that’s safe for your baby. Why can’t you just fill their bottle with soy or almond milk?
Many of the plant milks that we enjoy contain substances that aren’t really healthy for babies. They’re often sweetened with concentrated fruit juices that an infant might not be able to digest properly. Thickeners and stabilizers in plant milks are often inappropriate for infants. Plant milk from a carton may also contain pathogens; these won’t harm you, but a baby’s undeveloped immune system can quickly be overwhelmed.
Some milks are safe enough for an infant to drink, if properly sterilised first. Unfortunately, they’re nutritionally incomplete and won’t provide everything a baby needs. Coconut milk is an example: it’s lactose free and safe for babies to drink in moderation, and contains high levels of lauric acid — important for a baby’s digestion and immune health. Unfortunately, coconut milk lacks the calcium and protein that a baby needs. These would need to be supplemented from another source.
Plain organic hemp milk is another possibility. It’s free of lactose, gluten and other allergens, and is packed with useful nutrients. If you choose an unsweetened version, it’s also free from sugar. Again, though, it does lack some important nutrients.
Many vegan parents nowadays turn to home-made infant formulas as a solution. I’m hesitant to recommend these, unless you can find a recipe that’s been approved by paediatricians. They’re often thrown together by people with a limited understanding of an infant’s unique nutritional needs.
A better option is to use a commercial baby formula that’s made without animal products. You may need to be a little flexible here and accept a formula that’s less perfectly vegan than you’d like, such as one produced by an ethically dubious company.
It’s vitally important to work with your paediatrician on finding a safe, healthy alternative to breast milk. Where a baby’s health is at stake, there’s really no room to stand on your principles. If your doctor recommends something that would normally be unacceptable from a vegan perspective, please make an exception. Your baby’s health has to come first.