Monday, 27 January 2014

6 Facts about Alcohol and Breastfeeding


For 9 long months of my pregnancy, I was busy making lists of things I could finally do as soon as I give birth.

I would eat sushi, have lots of coffee and take painkillers! Oh, the simple pleasures of life, denied to pregnant women in sacrifice for the health of their child!

But the first item on my list, the thing I missed the most (other than sleeping on my front) was alcohol. I dreamed of champagne served in the delivery room, the moment I’m done pushing.
What nobody tells you, of course, is that maternal sacrifice doesn’t end with the final push. Far from it, this is where it starts.


Your body is no longer your own, for as long as your child needs it. And – if you decide to breastfeed your baby – they urgently need it NOW.

And so you may find yourself wondering, as I did – can breastfeeding and alcohol mix?

How much alcohol gets through to breast milk?

The good news is that now that you’re breastfeeding you can get away with a lot more than when you were pregnant. Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy risk giving their kids brain damage. Once the baby’s out, not everything you eat or drink makes its way into breast milk. In the case of booze, less than 2% of the alcohol you drink is passed on into the breast milk.[1]
This means that if you had a small, 150 ml glass of wine, 3 ml would find its way into your baby’s food. To put it in perspective, that’s about half a teaspoon.  I’m not advocating you spoon feed your child wine but if you do occasionally treat yourself, you really needn’t worry.
On the other hand, if you down a bottle of tequila and breastfeed directly after that, you’re essentially handing your baby a shot, minus the salt and lime. But I’m guessing that’s the least of your worries if that’s the situation you find yourself in.  

How quickly does alcohol reach breast milk?

Minutes. That’s how long it takes for alcohol to reach the bloodstream. It’s not true, as I heard some women say, that it’s safest to drink while you’re actually breastfeeding. The moment alcohol becomes detectable in your blood, it’s passed on into your breast milk. Its levels then grow steadily, peaking at 30 minutes to an hour after you’ve had a drink.[2]

How long should I wait to breastfeed after drinking?

Unfortunately, as long as alcohol stays in your blood, it’s in your breast milk too. The time it takes for it to clear from your system depends on your weight, age and how much you’ve had to drink. Here’s a helpful table to help you calculate it. On average, a woman weighing 54 kg (8st 6lb) will be completely sober 2,5 hours after having one drink.
It’s a myth that pumping milk and discarding it after drinking will make this process any quicker. Alcohol is not stored in the breast milk, it gets there from your bloodstream. This means it’s safe to breastfeed again several hours after drinking.

How does alcohol affect breastfeeding?

Studies have shown that babies nursing 3 to 4 hours after their mums have had a drink consumed 20% less milk than normally. [3] Alcohol slows down the production of milk for hours after it’s completely cleared from your system. The interesting thing is that mothers who participated in the study had no idea they weren’t producing as much milk as usual, although I’m sure their babies must have noticed!
It’s also a myth that small amounts of alcohol in breast milk will help your baby sleep better. Children who fed after their mum has had a tipple woke up much more often than they would normally. [4] That could make hangovers significantly harder to deal with!

How does alcohol affect children in the long term?

The problem with exposing babies to alcohol is that they can’t metabolise it as efficiently as adults. This means that if you drink regularly (i.e. daily), your child might be accumulating the small doses of alcohol they’re getting from your breast milk.
Research assessing the development of 1 year old children whose breastfeeding mums drank regularly found that their gross motor development was significantly delayed. [5] No effect was found, however, on their mental development. On the plus side, children whose breastfeeding mums drank only occasionally were developmentally on the same level as those of teetotallers or formula feeding mums.

Is breastfeeding after alcohol dangerous to your baby?

Well it’s certainly not good for them... But a small drink every once in a while is not going to do any harm and it might actually help you relax - which is good both for mum and baby. Just don’t make a habit out of it and never co-sleep with your child after you’ve had alcohol.

I’ve actually surprised myself in how little I need or like alcohol after avoiding it for such a long time. Somehow it never tastes as good as I remember it to and I rarely drink more than a sip. Perhaps sacrificing some things for our children is not as bad as I thought!




[1] HEIL, S. H. ; HUNGUND, B. L. ; ZHENG, Z. H. ; JEN, K. L. ; AND SUBRAMANIAN, M. G. Ethanol and lactation: Effects of milk lipids and serum constituents. Alcohol 18: 43 48, 1999.
[2] LAWTON, M. E. Alcohol in breast milk. Australian Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 25: 71 73, 1985.
[3] MENNELLA, J. A. , AND BEAUCHAMP, G. K. The transfer of alcohol to human milk: Effects on flavor and the infant' s behavior. New England Journal of Medicine 325: 981 985, 1991.
[4] MENNELLA, J. A. , AND GERRISH, C. J. Effects of exposure to alcohol in mother s milk on infant sleep. Pediatrics 101( 5) : 21-25, 1998.
[5] LITTLE, R. E. ; LAMBERT, M. D. ; AND WORTHINGTON ­ ROBERTS, B. Drinking and smoking at 3 months postpartum by lactation history. Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology 4: 290 302, 1989.

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