Girl (3) develops brain damage after following vegan diet since birth – plus healthy vegan guidelines for kids

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A little girl became so badly starved of nutrients she developed brain damage. (Photo: GALLO IMAGES/ GETTY IMAGES)
A little girl became so badly starved of nutrients she developed brain damage. (Photo: GALLO IMAGES/ GETTY IMAGES)

There was no mother’s milk for this little tot. From the moment she was born she was put on a strict vegan diet by her parents.

Fed only a homemade formula of coconut water and plant-based powders, the little girl became so badly starved of nutrients she developed brain damage.

The parents, who are from Melbourne in Australia and cannot be named for legal reasons, were charged with failing to provide necessities in life and causing injury to the child in 2018.

Both have now pleaded guilty and have been ordered to serve a 12-month community corrections order and undergo mental health treatment.

When she born in 2017, the infant was put on a strict plant-based diet. As she grew older her parents eventually fed her oats, bananas, rice and peanut butter and jam sandwiches.

But because she was deprived of dairy and meat, the little girl’s growth, health and development were severely affected.

According to Mail Online, the child was rushed to the emergency unit in August 2018 where doctors found widespread bruising, discoloured skin and rashes covering her body.

She also had multiple open wounds. Further medical tests revealed the child was bleeding internally and had Kwashiorkor, a form of severe malnutrition caused by insufficient kilojoule and protein intake.

Because of her diet, her bones hadn’t developed since birth. In fact, her development was so stunted, that at 19 months she hadn’t grown any teeth. 

Doctors alerted authorities, who eventually discovered the couple’s child was so malnourished she weight just 4,9kg – about 5kg less than a healthy weight for her age.

They also discovered she hadn’t been vaccinated and hadn’t received any medical care since birth, CNN reports.

The child had to be kept alive with life support machines for a month.

A week before she was rushed to hospital by her father, he wrote an email to a herbal health club in the US seeking advice for his daughter “who stopped wanting to drink or eat and when she does it’s not staying down or she starts to cough”.

They suggested he feed her a “stomach tea” instead of taking her to the hospital but her condition deteriorated so rapidly the desperate dad had no other choice.

County Court judge Sarah Huggett condemned the parents’ behaviour, saying they were old enough to know better.

"Neither offender was particularly young, immature, uneducated or inexperienced as a parent or caregiver to young children,” Huggett said of the couple, aged 32 and 34.

"This is not the case of an isolated act or omission or a momentary decision made in a pressured context, that led to a danger of serious injury to their child.”

The girl – now three – is living with her mother after the couple separated.

Vegan diets and children

Her parents may have had the best of intentions but milk alternatives like coconut milk, almond milk or soy milks are not suitable for infant feeding, warns Cape Town-based dietician Shanaaz Sungay.

“They’re not designed to provide the correct ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fat as well as the vitamins and minerals an infant requires during this crucial time of rapid growth and development,” Sungay cautions.

The first two years of a child’s life are especially important to ensure they receive proper nutrition as this time of life will have an irreversible effect on brain growth, the development of the nervous system, overall growth and development and future health.

However, if parents want to introduce their children to a vegan diet, it is important to plan accurately and work closely with a dietician.

“The main concern with vegan diets in early childhood is nutritional inadequacy,” Sungay says.

“Parents need to be very well informed, otherwise the risk of nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin D, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and possibly vitamin B12 may occur.” 

It is therefore important to consult a dietitian during your pregnancy and especially within the first six months of your baby’s life to ensure you are well equipped to start this journey.

Shanaaz Sungay is a Cape Town-based dietician who provides healthy tips to raise your kids vegan. (Photo: Haadia Davids/ Berkley Studios)

Here are a few tips if you want to raise a vegan infant or child

  • “A plant-based milk of about 300ml per day which has been fortified with calcium and vitamin D is the best choice,” Sungay advises. Soya or coconut yogurts as well as calcium-rich cereals could be included in your child’s diet too.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats vital for brain development and help keep the brain healthy and functioning optimally. They’re also important for vision and heart health. Plant sources include chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp and walnuts. “High-fibre foods tend to be very filling and can often cause children to become full before meeting their energy and nutrient needs,” Sungay says. “Try to offer nutrient-dense foods that also contain fibre, such as avocados, nuts and dried fruits.”
  • Iron is essential for the formation of red blood cells. Good sources of iron include beans, lentils and peas, dark green leafy vegetables like broccoli, okra, watercress or spring greens, whole meal bread and flour, nuts, wholegrains and fortified cereals.
  • Protein is a vital nutrient for growth and development and is essential in every child’s diet. “There are many protein-rich foods suitable for a vegan diet, which include a variety of pulses, beans, lentils and tofu,” Sungay advises. “Grain-like food such as quinoa as well as nuts and nut butters are also good sources of protein.”


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