After an Italian toddler’s grandparents took him to the hospital, doctors discovered he was severely malnourished and had dangerously low calcium levels. His parents reportedly fed him a vegan diet but, crucially, without providing supplements.
The 14-month-old toddler weighed only slightly more than a three-month-old and had to have emergency surgery because of a heart condition that was made worse by his calcium deficiency. The hospital reported the case to social services and the parents lost custody of the child.
Doctors agree that vegan or vegetarian diets can be healthy for babies — assuming they’re getting enough key nutrients. The hospital’s director of pediatrics told the Telegraph: “It is not a problem to choose different or unusual kinds of nutrition, and we certainly do not want to enter into a discussion of the merits of the decision. But since birth, the baby should have had support, in this case with calcium and iron.”
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says, “Well-planned vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are healthy for infants and toddlers.” Babies in vegan families need supplemental vitamin D and, after four to six months, additional iron either from supplements or fortified cereals. They also need iron-fortified formula and, after they turn one, soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and D. Parents should definitely not give babies almond, rice, hemp, or unfortified soy milk in the first year as these are not good substitutes for formula.
Four vegan-fed children have been hospitalized in Italy in the last 18 months, and infants and toddlers in the United States and France have died from starvation and vitamin deficiencies. If a vegan diet is important to you, it’s probably best to consult a registered dietitian.