If you’re not vegan, you might find this question compelling for a brief moment — and decide that since vegans avoid animal products and humans are animals, breast milk must not be vegan.
If you do follow a vegan lifestyle, though, you may suspect this question is a little more complicated than that.
The good news for vegan moms and moms-to-be is that you can breastfeed your baby without breaking with your values. Here’s why.
When talking about whether breast milk is vegan, we have to start with this question because it really gets to the heart of why it’s OK for you to breastfeed your little one.
Veganism is more than just a “plant-based diet,” although that can be an important part of it. Some vegans choose to abstain from the consumption of animal products through not only their diet, but also through what they wear, what personal care items they use, and more.
For example, a strict vegan would avoid eating meat, which is fairly obvious. But they’d also refrain from wearing leather, using a moisturizer tested on animals, and consuming any food that exploits an animal whether or not it kills that animal — e.g., honey.
There are different reasons for being vegan that will be important as we look at whether breast milk makes the A-OK list:
- Dietary vegans avoid all products that involve the exploitation of animals for human dietary consumption. The main focus is on food and drink. Dietary vegans may choose to follow this diet for health reasons.
- Ethical vegans follow the same food “rules” as dietary vegans but take it a step further and avoid anything in their daily lives that involves the nonconsensual use of animals for human purposes. For example, they also wouldn’t attend a dog or cat show or eat vegan cheese produced by a company that uses animal labor. Ethical vegans are concerned with the suffering of animals.
- Environmental vegans choose the lifestyle due to the damage animal use and related industries do to the environment, as well as its nonsustainability.
On all three levels, breast milk fits the bill as vegan.
There are key differences between breast milk and cow’s milk when it comes to human consumption: You aren’t being exploited for your milk, and you’re producing human milk for the health of your human offspring.
Every mammal produces milk that is perfectly and uniquely suitable for that mammal’s young. It includes complete nutrition necessary for baby’s life.
Vegans don’t believe milk that’s perfect for baby cows is suitable for baby humans from a health perspective. (Or, for that matter, from other perspectives that overlap with ethical veganism — like the fact that calves are typically taken from their nursing mothers prematurely in order for dairy farms to get cow’s milk in the volumes they want.)
So 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. Breast milk has many health advantages, including:
- antibodies that
help protect babyfrom infection lower riskof obesity for breastfed infants
So you can continue your vegan lifestyle while breastfeeding on top of knowing your milk is vegan — and healthy — for your baby.
And while it may not be perfectly painless — engorgement and painful letdown and biting with new teeth, oh my! — you’re able to not only consent to it, but also use it as a time to bond with and love on your infant.
As we’ve already stated, breastfeeding is a choice that doesn’t involve animal exploitation, even when including humans as part of the animal kingdom.
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.
For ethical vegans, the lifestyle is a matter of showing compassion to other living things. Taking milk from a cow for human consumption isn’t considered compassionate, even in the most ideal of circumstances, because the cow can’t give consent.
Breastfeeding your baby, on the other hand, is an act of compassion and consent. And what’s more, most vegans also consider donor milk from a milk bank to be vegan, because donor milk is human milk from a person who gave her consent that that milk be provided to other human babies.
Environmental veganism is all about sustainability and the environmental impact our food choices have.
You may have heard the familiar jokes about the cost-benefit analysis of exclusive breastfeeding: Your kid eats free as long as you decide to do it. It 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.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), you need an extra 450 to 500 calories daily while breastfeeding. If you’re already following an environmental vegan lifestyle, however, this increase isn’t going to significantly impact the environment.
Note that the ACOG also recommends consuming fish while breastfeeding, so talk to your health care provider about your vegan options for omega-3s.
Is breast milk ‘dairy’?
Yes, technically speaking, breast milk is considered a dairy item. Dairy just refers to products that are made from the milk of mammals — and you’re a mammal!
However, this doesn’t change the verdict when it comes to breast milk being vegan. If veganism to you is about following a set of rules — and you know that one rule is “no dairy” — we very respectfully suggest you rethink the heart behind the lifestyle.
Human milk is the ideal food for human babies, it involves the mother’s consent, and it has virtually no environmental impact.
Does breast milk contain lactose?
Again, the answer is yes. If you use humans’ inability to properly digest lactose in cow’s milk as a health reason for your veganism, though, rest assured: Your argument is still valid. Most adolescent and adult humans do have a hard time digesting the lactose in cow’s milk.
But as infants, our bodies produce more of an enzyme (called lactase) that allows us to digest lactose — including the lactose in our mother’s milk.
In extremely rare cases, a baby can be lactose intolerant. If this happens, you’ll know it within 10 days of baby’s birth, and you’ll need to work with your doctor on an appropriate plan for your little one’s diet.
Breast milk is indeed vegan and is the perfect food to nourish your newborn and future animal rights activist.
Whether your baby should follow a vegan diet after you’re done exclusively breastfeeding is something to discuss with their doctor — growing children need important nutrients that can sometimes be missed without due diligence.
But rest assured, breastfeeding doesn’t make you any less vegan, no matter what the reasoning behind your lifestyle is.