This story was originally published on April 28, 2019. It has been updated.
Cheers! You just brought a tiny human into the world. You're settling into a routine. You've managed to feed the baby in public. You've slept a couple of full nights. You're ready to celebrate with that champagne you meant to have the day the baby was born but were too tired to open for those first couple of months.
Before you toast, you check a parenting forum to see how long you should wait to nurse the baby after enjoying your bubbly. There, you find the advice to “pump and dump." You don't want your baby getting drunk or getting sick. So, just to be safe, you skip the second glass and pump out the “bad" milk. As you pour that liquid gold down the drain, you decide not to drink again until your baby weans. But the truth is:
There is usually no need to pump and dump.
Popular baby websites—the kind that might pop up if you type “should I pump and dump?" into a search engine—offer rare agreement on this particular parenting issue: there is usually no need to pump and dump.
You'll find Parents and The Bump, both of which tell women it's okay to enjoy a few drinks while breastfeeding, although the first limits that to one or two drinks a week while the other limits to one or two drinks a day. There's BabyCenter, which accurately identifies the time when alcohol is most concentrated in breast milk. There's a well-sourced piece from KellyMom that digs into the scholarly debate on breastfeeding and drinking.
All of these sites identify a drinking mom's milk as safe: the only reason to “pump and dump" is engorgement when you can't easily feed the baby or store the milk.
This widespread agreement stems from a fairly simple explanation. When a woman is pregnant, her blood alcohol content is the baby's blood alcohol content. That's why alcohol use is generally discouraged for pregnant mothers in the U.S. When a mother is nursing, her blood supplies the sugars, fats, and proteins that are converted to baby's milk, which gets processed into its blood.
One helpful piece on Slate does the math on how much alcohol would be in a baby's milk even if the mother was drunk:
“But even if you've refilled your glass a few times, there is very, very little alcohol in your milk—and very little ingested by your baby. If a 150-pound nursing mom downs four alcoholic drinks—say, four 5-ounce glasses of table wine—and then breast-feeds her 13-pound baby 4 ounces of milk when she's at her tipsiest, her baby will end up with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.0038 percent — the same blood alcohol concentration her mom would have after consuming a mere 1.5 ounces of Bud Light (one-eighth of a 12-ounce bottle)."
It is important to note many medical providers recommend that women do not breastfeed if they are feeling the effects of the alcohol. If you feel buzzed, there is some alcohol in your breastmilk—and it is probably better if babies do not drink that milk. We simply don't know enough about the impacts, so we can't say with certainly that it's fine. For reference, Diana Spalding, Motherly's Digital Education Editor and a midwife writes that, "The American Academy of Pediatrics states that the "ingestion of alcoholic beverages should be minimized and limited to an occasional intake [which is approximately]... 2 oz liquor, 8 oz wine, or 2 beers."
That said, there is rare consensus on this particular parenting issue: a nursing mother's milk is generally regarded as safe, even if she has been drinking. But looking at message boards on many parenting websites suggests that many breastfeeding women have not gotten this message, or perhaps heard and were skeptical of it.
The real question to answer, then, is not should women pump and dump, it's why do women believe they should?
Why the pump and dump persists.
The practice of “pump and dump" may be so prevalent because the term is so memorable. Any headline that invokes “pump and dump," even to negate the practice, may unintentionally reinforce it, because a three-word rhyming verb phrase is hard to forget.
Another reason for the persistence of “pump and dump" may be that while the verb-based command is simple and memorable, the science debunking it is complicated. One problem of using scientific literature to research such questions is that no one study can provide all the answers, but once a study is picked up by the news, its findings become solidified as “fact."
That's why review articles, which examine all of the findings a scientific community has come to about a particular topic, can be more enlightening. They weigh the different findings against each other and offer a useful summary of the literature so far.
One such review appeared in a 2013 issue of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology. One of the more interesting findings of the review was the confirmation that babies consume less milk when their mothers drink. The current theory, while not yet well-understood, is that alcohol consumption slows the body's production of prolactin and oxytocin, which regulate milk production and ejection. But as for drinking while nursing, authors conclude that:
“It appears biologically implausible that occasional exposure to such amounts should be related to clinically meaningful effects to the nursing children. The effect of occasional alcohol consumption on milk production is small, temporary and unlikely to be of clinical relevance. Generally, there is little clinical evidence to suggest that breastfed children are adversely affected in spite of the fact that almost half of all lactating women in Western countries ingest alcohol occasionally."
It's also possible that the “pump and dump" is tied to pervasive judgement of mothers in our culture. A look at where the term comes from can help us unpack these judgments. The term “pump and dump" did not initially apply to nursing mothers, but instead to the financial industry, where to “pump and dump" meant to fraudulently advertise a stock to artificially inflate its prices and then sell off one's own shares at a tidy profit. This nefarious purpose is echoed in other meanings of “pump and dump," among them gasoline theft, a one-night stand, as well as a few more colorful, NSFW meanings best explored on Urban Dictionary.
When the breastfeeding “pump and dump" is put in the context of these other meanings, we see that all of them imply judgment. In the stock market, he who pumps and dumps is defrauding innocent investors for his own gain. In dating and relationships, he who pumps and dumps is committing a similar type of fraud, albeit for a shorter-term gain.
What about the woman who pumps and dumps? She, too, is perceived to have put her child in harm's way by focusing on her own pleasure (the glass of wine) over her baby's health. Pumping and dumping that “liquid gold" is almost a penance for the woman, who, like Pink reheating her decaf coffee, is perceived to have acted shamefully.
Of course, the other pumpers and dumpers have committed a far worse act than the breastfeeding mother. In fact, the greater sin may be in throwing out the milk, which has less alcohol than kefir, kombucha, juice, or homemade bread. But it's likely the same people who judge mothers for drinking while nursing might also judge them for giving kids juice and gluten.
Drinking when breastfeeding: A Simple Tool to Pump & Dump
Many of the articles above—including the scientific review article—mention Motherisk's nomogram for breastfeeding mothers, which can be used to determine roughly how many hours and minutes it will take for drinks to be cleared from her blood (and thus, her breast milk).
The problem with such a tool is that it sets as its goal having absolutely no alcohol in the mother's blood, and there is, as yet, no scientific evidence to support this is necessary. It's this kind of rounding down to “no safe amount" that leaves women drinking a glass of wine and then thinking they should pull out their pumps.
Here is Motherly's Digital Education Editor and midwife, Diana Spalding's, take on it:
"The only time I encourage pumping and dumping is to prevent engorgement (and the sequel of problems that can come from it). So, say you are out at a wedding enjoying a margarita or four. Great! (But please call an Uber.) If you don't empty your breasts, you will likely become engorged. And routinely skipping feedings can lower your milk supply as well.
"Instead, take a dancing break and pump. Now, that pumped milk will have some alcohol in it. To be extra safe, instead of bringing that milk home for your baby to drink, dump it. When you're all sobered up tomorrow ,your baby will have perfectly 'sober' milk to drink, and your breasts will thank you for the previous night's emptying. I think a lot of women think that they have to pump the alcohol out of their bodies before they feed their baby, which is jus not the case. If it's out of your blood stream, it's out of your milk."
If you're avoiding alcohol altogether or want to have another round without worry, check out our favorite alcohol-free way to toast an evening.
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