When it comes to alcohol and breastfeeding, myths and misconceptions abound. How safe is it? How does it affect your milk? And how long should you wait before nursing your child? Though the occasional glass is perfectly safe, there are a lot of conflicting views about drinking while breastfeeding that can do a great deal of damages to the mother's breastfeeding relationship with her baby. So before you pass on that crisp glass of Sancerre -- or even worse, give up nursing that sweet baby of yours -- learn to separate facts from fiction.
Here are 6 alcohol and breastfeeding myths, busted -- along with a chart that can help you time your nursing schedule.
Myth 1: It isn’t safe for a breastfeeding mom to drink. There is no real benefit to drinking alcohol when nursing. But as long as it is done responsibly and cautiously, there is nothing wrong with the occasional glass of wine. Babies get so little alcohol from breast milk that researchers have stated that even a theoretical case of binge drinking would not subject the infant to “clinically relevant amounts of alcohol.” This isn’t to say that mothers can drink as much as they want. A tipsy or drunk mother is more likely to drop or accidentally hurt the baby, so moderation is key. Also, newborns break down alcohol at about half the rate of adults, so they may be more susceptible to be affected by alcohol in the milk than an older baby. Though drinking moderately is safe, be sure to take it slow. After all, you probably abstained for approximately 9 months, so you may get the effects of alcohol faster than you used to.
Myth 2: Drinking beer helps build milk supply. While there’s no scientific evidence to support this centuries-old wisdom, drinking beer has shown to stimulate milk production. But it isn’t thanks to the alcohol, which notoriously dehydrates your body, making you lose body fluid. This, in turn, can hinder milk production. What’s more, drinking can inhibit letdowns and temporarily decrease milk yield. It isn’t detrimental, but it can explain why babies have a harder time breastfeeding when their mothers consume alcohol. It is the polysaccharide in the barley used in alcoholic and nonalcoholic beers that seems to boost prolactin, the hormone that helps nursing moms make more milk. Hops, brewer’s yeast and oats are also recommended galactogogues.
Myth 3: Alcohol in breast milk helps baby sleep. While a breastfed baby may become drowsy and fall asleep more quickly after drinking liquor-laced milk, they tend to sleep for shorter periods of time and wake up more frequently at night. Other studies have shown that babies who are exposed to alcohol in the milk usually spend less time in active REM sleep, which is thought to be crucial for brain development. At very high doses, alcohol can affect the baby’s ability to suck, feed and breathe. But a mother’s BAC needs to reach 0.3% to have significant effects on the baby. To put that into perspective, 0.08% is the legal limit for driving under the influence in all 50 states.
Myth 4: Baby does not like the taste of alcohol in milk. Babies tend to drink significantly less milk in the four hours after their mothers drink, and many people believe that this phenomenon is because they don’t like the taste of alcohol-flavored milk. Sure, what moms ingest can change, at least slightly, the taste of her milk, but is that really enough to stop baby from drinking mom's "liquid gold"? There’s no scientific evidence to support that claim. What we do know is that alcohol disrupts the hormones that are involved in milk production – more specifically oxytocin, which is responsible for letdowns. This disruption can cause a temporary decrease in milk supply and could thus explain why baby isn’t getting as much milk after the mother consumes alcohol (and why he tends to compensate by drinking more 8 to 16 hours later).
Myth 5: Pumping helps your body process alcohol out of the system. Alcohol leaves a mom’s breast milk in the same way it leaves her bloodstream: by being broken down. As long as it is still in your bloodstream, it will still be in your breast milk, and pumping won’t speed up the process of getting it out of your system. So unless you are uncomfortable from engorgement, you do not need to pump and dump. All you need to do is wait. Once you’ve sobered up, your milk will be, once again, alcohol free. The amount of time your body needs to rid your breast milk of alcohol depends on your bodyweight, the alcohol content of the drink you had, how much you drank, if you ate any food with the drink, and how fast you drank it. How can you gauge if you are in the clear? If you feel like you can safely and legally drive, you can probably breastfeed your baby.
Myth 6: The blood alcohol level of the baby will be the same as that of the mother. The alcohol concentration that baby will have in his bloodstream after drinking the milk is equal to 5 or 6 percent of that found in the mother’s bloodstream. For example, if a 30-year-old mother weighing 120 pounds drinks 3 glasses of white wine in two hours, her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will be 0.084%. If her 15-pound baby drinks 6 ounces of milk when she’s at her tipsiest, the baby’s levels will be around 0.005% – an infinitesimal concentration, compared to that of the mom’s.
Still trying to figure out when you can nurse next? Here's a chart for reference:
Pegah Jalali, MS RD CDN is a Registered Dietitian who lives and practices in New York City. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Toronto and a Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition from NYU. Pegah completed her nutrition internship at Mount Sinai Hospital and then went on to specialize in Pediatrics at New York Presbyterian Weil Cornell Hospital, followed by the NYU Langone Medical Center. Pegah spends her time at Middleberg Nutrition working with families and children on a wide range of nutritional issues. Follow @pjalali and @middlebergnutrition for interesting updates on food and nutrition.
Original illustration by Shanequa Simpson for Well Rounded NY.