There are certain things that most people can agree on when it comes to the health of babies. One of these is that a woman should refrain from drinking during her pregnancy to avoid risking her baby’s health. Another thing that a majority of healthcare professionals agree upon is that breast milk is one of, if not the, healthiest ways to feed an infant. Concerns and numerous questions arise, however, when it comes to drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.
Most mothers want to do the right thing in order to ensure the health and safety of their offspring; this means making the right choices when it comes to what they put in their bodies, and what will ultimately make its way into their milk. Answers regarding drinking alcohol during this time vary, as experts do not entirely agree. For this reason, it is important that nursing mothers carefully research alcohol and its effect on nursing.
Before making the decision to drink while breast-feeding, a nursing mother should consider the affects of alcohol on breastfeeding. A breastfeeding mother’s ability to care for her baby may be negatively impacted as a result of alcohol consumption. This is particularly true when the mother is drinking frequently or in large amounts. Alcohol can affect a nursing mother’s ability to feed her baby, and may make her less attentive to the infant’s needs. Additionally, a mother who has been drinking may make more careless mistakes that could ultimately threaten the infant’s safety. Regular consumption of alcohol may also cause depression and elevated fatigue. Also, before making the decision to drink, a mother should consider the age of her infant. Alcohol can be a problem for infants who are younger than three months as infants this young have a more immature liver. Because of this, their bodies are only able to detoxify the alcohol at half of the rate that it takes an adult. As a result is it generally recommended that women wait until their infant has reached three months before drinking.
Alcohol can affect both a mother’s breast milk and may ultimately also affect the baby. In terms of breast milk, roughly two percent of the alcohol that a mother consumes is transferred to the milk that she produces. This is the same level of alcohol that reaches her blood. As long as a woman’s blood alcohol levels are elevated, so will be the alcohol levels in her milk. This means that the alcohol is not stored long-term in the milk. In fact, alcohol levels in one’s blood and breast milk reach a peak level after roughly thirty to sixty minutes after a woman has stopped drinking. Once the alcohol level has peaked, it will begin to decrease from that point forward. Naturally, times vary according to the number of drinks that a woman has consumed, but at least two to three hours per serving of alcoholic drink is often a sufficient amount of time to wait before breastfeeding an infant with milk that is free of alcohol. A woman who is breast-feeding but wishes to have a drink of alcohol can choose to feed her baby at this time – after the alcohol has left her system – or she may feed the baby before having the drink. Another option is to express one’s milk prior to having an alcoholic drink so that there is a bottle on hand should the baby become hungry. These are the guaranteed safest way to enjoy a drink, however, some women may want to feed their baby without utilizing these options.
When a breastfeeding mother drinks alcohol, it has an effect on lactation; however, it isn’t entirely in the way that some women have been led to believe. In the U.S. and abroad, some women believe that drinking alcohol will improve their production of breast milk. While this isn’t entirely true, depending on who one asks, it isn’t entirely false either. According to some medical studies, drinking beer can increase the hormone prolactin, which aids in the production of milk; however, it has been shown that the same effect can be achieved by drinking nonalcoholic beer. This is because it is believed that components in the barley are wheat cause the stimulation of prolactin levels. Other studies show that alcohol ingestion is actually disruptive to breastfeeding as it inhibits the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a key hormone in the milk-ejection reflex. When the release of this hormone is blocked, the amount of milk received by the infant is limited and it takes longer for the milk to initially eject.
Because such a small amount enters a woman’s milk, experts often debate the effect that it has on an infant. Some researchers believe that a single drink a day is harmless and safe for babies. Others in the medical community note that some studies show it may have an effect on an infant’s sleep patterns, early learning, development, and behavior. There is little dispute, however, in the fact that moderate to heavy consumption of alcohol on a daily basis can affect an infant’s central nervous system. Because alcohol is categorized as a depressant, large amounts of alcohol can depress the respiratory system, cause weakness, drowsiness, and deep slumber. In addition, moderate to heavy use of alcohol can cause not only delayed learning, but also delayed motor and muscular development.
While it is possible to breastfeed and drink, it must be done with forethought. Breastfeeding mothers should plan ahead when they want to indulge in alcohol by feeding their baby first and/or expressing milk for later feedings. While the effects of small amounts of alcohol are not definitive, caution is often the best when it comes to alcohol and one’s baby. Ideally a woman should speak with her baby’s doctor and do her research so that she can make an informed decision when and if she decides to have a drink of alcohol.
Click on any of the following links to read more about breast-feeding and alcohol consumption.
- Alcohol’s Effect on Lactation
- Alcohol/Smoking/Marijuana: Breastfeeding
- Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions (PDF)
- Breastfeeding: Smoking and Alcohol
- Maternal Nutrition and Breastfeeding: A Mother’s Diet While Breastfeeding
- Your Baby’s First Few Weeks
- Breast-feeding and Alcohol: Is it Okay to Drink?
- Breastfeeding and Lactation: Diet for Breastfeeding Mothers
- Social Drugs and Breastfeeding: Handling an Issue that isn’t Black and White (PDF)
- Alcohol Consumption Disrupts Breastfeeding Hormones (PDF)
- Alcohol and Nursing Moms
- Alcohol Doesn’t Aid Breast Milk
- Drinking and Breastfeeding: How Much is Safe?
- Alcohol Bad for Breastfeeding
- Breastfeeding Basics (PDF)
- Breastfeeding: Tobacco, Alcohol, and Drugs