No, Veganism Doesn’t Kill Babies

But homemade formula can. TW: Child Neglect.

Sweet Baby in Cap From Pixabay

This week, a 5-month old baby in Florida was discovered malnourished and dehydrated. His parents are in jail; the baby is with the Department of Children and Families.

And the internet is blaming veganism. Again.

Okay, here are the details on this particular case

as reported by WESH:

  • Florida parents Robert Buskey, 31, and Julia French, 20, spoon-fed their infant a mashed-potato-based compound that French found on the internet.
  • When the 5-month-old was discovered, he had sunken eyes, loose skin on his extremities, his ribs and other bones were showing, and he couldn’t move.
  • The baby weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces at birth. When discovered, at 5 months old, he weighted 8 pounds, 8 ounces.
  • French describes herself as Buskey’s concubine under the principles of their religion, Nazarite Hebrew.
  • The doctor had recommended formula to them that fit with their vegan lifestyle.
  • They could afford formula, and did not give a reason why they didn’t provide it.

Florida Man (and Florida Mom and Florida Dad)

I live in the Pacific Northwest now, but I grew up in the same Florida county where these people almost starved their baby. Let’s just say, there’s a reason the Florida Man trope exists. Nazarite Hebrew? Concubine?

Yet almost every headline about this story implies that veganism is to blame. Here’s the Daily Mail’s: “Vegan parents almost starve their five-month-old son to death by switching out his doctor-prescribed formula for one ‘more consistent with their lifestyle’”

Remember, the doctor-prescribed formula was consistent with veganism, so the couple’s choice to spoon-feed a mashed potato concoction is not about veganism. We all eat potatoes; but (almost) all of us know we don’t feed them to newborns.

Vegans know “fed is best.”

Vegans breastfeed. Vegans accept donor milk (from vegans or non-vegans who willingly donate). Vegans use soy formula. Vegans use rice formula. Vegans sometimes use cow milk-based formula, if the rare need arises (due to allergies, for instance). Vegan parents, just like everyone else, know fed is best, and we do what we need to do to keep our babies healthy. No one should feed homemade concoctions to their infants.

Nursing my baby when she was 7 months old (Author’s Personal Photo)

My vegan baby-feeding experience:

I breastfed my baby. I couldn’t produce enough due to a breast reduction surgery, so I accepted donor milk (the most amazing gift in the world). When my little one turned 6 months old, I stopped accepted donor milk (figured others could use it more, at this point) and I nursed alongside soy formula and vegan food.

Before I reached out for donations, my baby wasn’t growing. I knew my breast reduction was the reason — professionals had told me I probably would produce some milk but not enough.

But I was keenly aware of all the people assuming veganism was the reason I wasn’t producing enough milk. (As if you have to drink milk to make milk. Think about it: Cows eat plants, and they sure manage to make a lot of milk.)

The other Florida vegan mom who had her baby taken away

November 2014, I was visiting my parents in Florida, and the very same local news stations were covering the story of Sarah Markham, a vegan mom fighting to get her baby back. I was nursing my baby, then topping her off with a bottle of donor milk, as I bawled through Markham’s story. That story could’ve been mine. They could’ve taken my baby away.

Markham took her 12-day-old baby to the doctor for a weigh-in and was told that her baby’s weight was down 10% from birth.

First off, let’s take a look at infant weight loss:

Most babies lose weight after birth, as it takes a few days of nursing before your milk comes in. That’s totally normal. Here’s the breastfeeding authority, KellyMom, explaining newborn weight gain:

A 5–7% weight loss during the first 3–4 days after birth is normal. A 10% weight loss is sometimes considered normal, but this amount of weight loss is a sign that the breastfeeding needs to be evaluated. It’s a good idea to have a routine weight check at 5 days (baby should be gaining rather than losing weight by day 5), so that any developing problems can be caught and remedied early.
Baby should regain birth weight by 10 days to 2 weeks. If your baby lost a good bit of weight in the early days, or if your baby is sick or premature, it may take longer to regain birth weight. If baby does not regain birth weight by two weeks, this is a sign that the breastfeeding needs to be evaluated.

Markham had been trying to exclusively breastfeed, but this doctor’s appointment was a wake-up call. Rather than going to the hospital and supplementing with non-vegan formula, like the doctor recommended, she bought soy formula at Whole Foods. She would keep nursing, and supplement with soy formula — A great plan!

Baby Bottle Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

But that day, she was arrested and her baby taken from her.

Because she didn’t listen to the doctor’s advice.

She was only legally allowed to have supervised visits with her own baby, in a different county from where she lived. This meant she could no longer breastfeed at all, or meaningfully bond with her infant.

When I was in Florida, viewing her ongoing story on the news, dealing with my own post-partum depression and post-partum anxiety, her son was 5 months old, and she still was fighting criminal charges and going through court battles to try to regain custody.

My baby was just one month younger — the same age, really. I was vegan; I had tried and been unable to exclusively breastfeed. My baby initially lost weight, and it took her two full weeks to get back to her birth weight.

The only difference is my doctor was supportive. I was honest that we were vegan. I was honest that I really wanted to exclusively breastfeed, but if it came down to it, I would use donor milk or soy formula. Everyone was honest, and no one took my baby away. They worked with me. I was lucky.

Sarah Markham got her baby back that week, as I followed her story on the news. All charges were dropped. But she and her baby would never have those 5 months back.

The baby’s grandparents cared for Markham’s baby while she legally couldn’t. They fed him soy formula, and physically, he thrived.

When it comes to homemade formulas, the media blames veganism, even when the formula’s not vegan.

I’ve been vegan a long time, so I still remember the judgment I faced when this 2003 story broke, about another malnourished baby. Buried in that article is at least a mention that cod liver oil, part of the homemade infant concoction, is not even vegan. Yet, the headline still says, “Vegan parents on trial for baby’s severe malnutrition.”

“Vegan” is not a code word for, “Intuitive concoction made of sunlight and goji berries.” Vegan just means no animal products. When you take animal products out of the picture, there is still a huge variety of nourishing (and not so nourishing) foods to choose from.

There will always be vegans who make bad decisions, just as there will always be omnivores who do.

Pseudoscience is a real problem (in vegan and non-vegan circles)

But stories like Markham’s exacerbate the problem. When a parent is just trying to care for her baby, and the state takes the baby away, for months, that adds to widespread distrust of the medical system and Child Protective Services, making parents less likely to listen to the medical establishment about what is best for their child.

Parents are attempting things like homemade infant formula for the same reason they’re not vaccinating. As Jessica Valenti wrote in The Measles Moms: why women lead the anti-vaxx movement:

“it’s also because of their understandable distrust of the medical establishment. There is ample evidence published in scientific journals that women are more likely than men to be disbelieved or not taken seriously when they report chronic pain or fatigue, among other symptoms, and to have their concerns written of as ‘all in their head.’ There’s also ample anecdotal evidence that doctors can be condescending to women (and men, too). So it’s no surprise that many women don’t always think the medical establishment has their best interest at heart.’”
“It can be empowering to trust yourself and your instincts, especially when you’ve been told over and over that they’re wrong.”

I am lucky my midwives, doctor, WIC nurses, lactation consultant and therapist were all allies in my struggle to care for my child. I was able to trust them, to feel that they trusted me as well. And when they heard “vegan,” they did not jump to “unfit parent.”

Appropriately planned vegan diets can satisfy the nutritional needs of people at all stages of life.

From the Journal of the American Dietetic Association:

The American Dietetic Association and The American Academy of Pediatrics state that vegan diets can promote normal infant growth.

Breast milk (from a vegan or omnivore) and all FDA-approved formulas (vegan or otherwise) are safe for babies. Tens of thousands of vegan parents are raising their children vegan. The problem is homemade concoctions of any kind.

So let’s put the blame where it belongs.

Interested in veganism? I wrote this about my own experience, and I included lots of helpful tips!