Breastfeeding and Alcohol: Should New Moms be Drinking?

To drink or not to drink while breastfeeding? Breastfeeding and alcohol poses questions for many postpartum mothers. It’s also a topic where new moms have to sift through misinformed or contradictory advice passed down from generations of friends, families, or well-intentioned strangers.

You may be encouraged to drink beer to increase your milk supply. Or, if you must, have one glass of wine but only sometimes, and on a full stomach. Or, you should avoid drinking because the alcohol gets into your milk and maybe you’ll hurt your baby.

As a woman who breastfed, I knew I wanted to arm myself with information before walking into a social situation blind so I could use my best judgment and enjoy a couple of drinks, free of any extra mommy-guilt.

The journey of alcohol to your breastmilk

It is helpful to understand how alcohol gets to your breast milk in the first place. When you enjoy a glass of wine, it goes into your stomach and small intestine where it’s absorbed into your bloodstream. It makes its way to your liver where the alcohol is broken down at a rate of about 1 oz of alcohol per hour. Any remaining alcohol is stored in the blood until the liver is ready to process more.

It is the accumulation of alcohol in your bloodstream that can flow freely into the breastmilk. The alcohol concentration in your breast milk is approximately the same concentration as your BAC (blood alcohol concentration), peeking around 30 minutes after consumption (this varies by individual, depending upon how much food was eaten, mom’s body weight, the percentage of body fat, etc.).

Once the alcohol leaves your bloodstream, it’s cleared from your breastmilk. Pumping and dumping will not speed up the elimination process.

A hypothetical example shows if a mother engages in binge drinking four drinks of 12 grams of alcohol and then breastfeeds her baby at the highest blood alcohol concentration, the child’s blood alcohol level would not exceed 0.005%. According to the researchers, it seems biologically unlikely that occasional exposure at this level can amount to clinically meaningful effects.  

In short, this extreme scenario illustrates how very little alcohol reaches your baby. Binge drinking to this level is not advisable for nursing mothers as it poses risks to the care of the child. But, if you are a woman who enjoys a crisp beer on the patio with friends or a few glasses of wine at a dinner party, the alcohol in your breastmilk will be even more insignificant.

Breastfeeding expert Dr. Jack Newman backs the claim that reasonable alcohol intake does not need to be discouraged. He believed that prohibiting alcohol completely is another way we make life unnecessarily restrictive for nursing mothers.

What to consider with breastfeeding and alcohol

You can have a couple of drinks knowing your baby is not at risk of consuming significant amounts of alcohol, but it’s important to note that alcohol can impact your breastfeeding experience in other ways.

Alcohol was once said to have special virtues for the nursing mother. Drinking beer was once suggested as a way to increase milk supply and drinking a cocktail was once recommended to help your baby sleep better. But over time, as studies began to focus on the impacts of alcohol and breastfeeding, it became more evident that alcohol can hurt a woman’s breastmilk supply.

Studies have shown that consuming alcohol can inhibit milk ejection, or more commonly referred to as the let-down reflex, and temporarily decrease the available milk supply. A temporary decrease in milk supply can lead to a baby who needs to nurse more often but seems less satisfied, disrupting both of your routines.

Additionally, drinking in excess and caring for a baby is never advisable. Excessive drinking impairs your judgment and natural reflexes making carrying, cosleeping, or driving with your baby a risk to their safety.

Have a drink and ditch the mommy guilt
If you want to enjoy your favorite adult beverage but still have some reservations, here are a few tips to help put you at ease.

Follow the guidelines

You know what your body can handle. Use your best judgment and stay within your limits. If you don’t know your limits or are a stickler for rules, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests limiting alcohol intake to the occasional consumption of approximately 2 oz liquor, 8 oz wine, or 2 beers.

Plan ahead

Bring a bottle or two of expressed breastmilk to bottle feed your baby and enjoy a couple drinks without the anxiety of all the calculations.

Pump and dump—not in the traditional sense

You do not need to pump and dump to remove alcohol from your breast milk, but you may need to pump to give yourself some relief. If you plan to delay feeding your baby, bring your breast pump to help relieve pressure and prevent uncomfortable engorgement. If you don’t want to feed your baby the expressed milk, save it for a future milk bath!

Approximately half of breastfeeding women in Western countries are enjoying a glass of merlot or a pint of beer. If you don’t want to restrict yourself, it’s OK to enjoy your favorite adult beverage. Stay informed as new research emerges, use common sense, and plan ahead. Doing your research and finding what you’re comfortable with is most important.

Disclaimer: The majority of this advice is for low to moderate drinkers. Women who regularly drink in excess should not breastfeed and should seek advice from their healthcare provider.

Featured image by Melissa Johnson

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