During pregnancy, many women make changes in their lives in order to have the best chance to have a healthy baby. I know I did during both of my pregnancies. These changes can involve their diet, exercise habits and other lifestyle factors. After birth, new moms may consider adding back some of the things they cut out over the last 9 months, including drinking alcohol. But is adding it back in that simple? During September’s Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) Awareness month, I thought I’d examine the topic of alcohol in breastmilk a little more closely for you. It’s a question I get frequently from the women who contact our service. As you probably know, for years, experts have been saying there is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy, but does alcohol affect a breastfeeding baby?
Before you raise your glass of favorite vino, here’s what research says…
Studies have shown that alcohol passes into the breast milk. The concentration of alcohol in the breast milk is close to the concentration of alcohol in the woman’s bloodstream. Alcohol can pass back and forth from the bloodstream into the breast milk. It’s a common myth that pumping and discarding breast milk will remove the alcohol from breast milk. Even if you discard pumped breast milk after drinking, alcohol still remains in your blood for a period of time, depending on how much you had to drink. The only way to get rid of alcohol from your system is to wait for your body to break it down and get rid of it. It takes about 2 to 2.5 hours for each standard drink to clear from breast milk. (A standard serving is considered to be 12 ounces of beer, 4-5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.) For each additional drink, a woman must wait another 2-2.5 hours per drink. Pumping and discarding, drinking water, taking caffeine, or exercising do not help your body get rid of the alcohol faster, because only time can reduce the amount of alcohol in the breast milk.
Another common misconception is that drinking during breastfeeding is recommended to help produce more breast milk. It used to be believed that beer raised levels of prolactin, a hormone in the body that plays a role in making breast milk. However, alcohol may actually reduce the amount of milk you produce. It is now known that alcohol lowers the release of another hormone called oxytocin. Lower oxytocin levels can affect the amount of milk that is released from the breast, meaning a baby may get less milk.
Alcohol’s known effect on baby
Many people wonder if alcohol affects a growing baby. Effects on infants from alcohol in breast milk are not well studied. There are some reports that babies whose mothers drink alcohol while breastfeeding may eat less and/or experience changes in their sleeping patterns. One study suggested problems with motor development following exposure to alcohol in breast milk, but other studies did not show the same results. There are many factors that can play a role in how alcohol can possibly affect a developing baby. Differences in genetics and metabolism of alcohol by both the mother and the baby may result in a wide range of risk. The risk may be different even in different babies from the same mother. At this time, it’s not clear how alcohol in breast milk can affect a developing baby.
Depending on the amount of alcohol you drink and the frequency with which you drink, you may not need to stop breastfeeding if you drink alcohol. You can speak with your health care provider as well as the baby’s pediatrician about how much alcohol you are drinking as well as all your choices for breastfeeding. You can also contact a MotherToBaby counselor at (866) 626-6847 to talk about alcohol and other exposures during breastfeeding.
Chris Colón is a certified genetic counselor based in Tucson, Arizona and proud mother of two. She currently works for The University of Arizona as a Teratogen Information Specialist at MotherToBaby Arizona, formerly known as the Arizona Pregnancy Riskline. Her counseling experience includes prenatal and cardiac genetics, and she has served as MotherToBaby’s Education Committee Co-chair since 2012.
MotherToBaby is a service of the international Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), a suggested resource by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about alcohol, medications, vaccines, diseases, or other exposures, call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847. You can also visitMotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets.
The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR ®) is a national non-profit based in Washington D.C. that is widely recognized as the thought-leader in promoting research on biological differences in disease and is dedicated to transforming women’s health through science, advocacy, and education.