Alcohol and Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to bond with your baby and provide them with all the essential nutrients they need for healthy growth and development. However, conflicting information may leave many mothers confused about whether it is safe to consume alcohol during the nursing phase of motherhood.
Is It Safe to Drink Alcohol While Breastfeeding?
The safest option for breastfeeding mothers is to avoid alcoholic drinks altogether.
Although some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may not affect breastfeeding infants (i.e., 1 or 2 glasses of wine), others suggest that even small amounts can impair milk supply and affect the baby’s behavior and development.
In reality, combining breastfeeding and alcohol consumption can harm both the mother and the baby.
Drinking while breastfeeding can have the following effects on the baby:
- Inadequate milk: Since alcohol can decrease breast milk production, the baby can face potential weight loss, nutritional deficiency, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalances.
- Disrupted sleep patterns: Exposure to alcohol in human milk can cause the baby to have disrupted sleep patterns, leading to irritability and potential impacts on the baby’s overall health.
- Slow weight gain: Babies exposed to alcohol in breast milk may experience slow weight gain due to inadequate milk production—this may also put the baby at risk of malnutrition.
- Developmental delays: Exposure to excessive alcohol in breast milk can cause developmental delays in babies, including speech, motor, and cognitive delays.
- Increased risk of SID: Some studies suggest excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SID), a leading cause of infant death.
Likewise, the mother may also experience negative side effects, including:
- Decreased milk ejection reflex: Alcohol can reduce the milk ejection reflex (i.e., letdown), making it harder for the mother to express milk.
- Interference with lactation hormone: Alcohol can interfere with lactation hormones (prolactin and oxytocin), causing the mother to produce less milk.
- Slowed reaction time and impaired judgment: Drinking while breastfeeding can impair the mother’s reaction time and judgment, making it harder for her to respond to her baby’s needs or react quickly in emergencies.
- Risk of dehydration: Alcohol consumption can lead to dehydration, causing symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, and dry mouth—impacting the mother’s health and ability to care for her baby.
- Negative impact on mental health: Alcohol can negatively affect a person’s mental health. New mothers may be particularly vulnerable to these effects as they are already experiencing the stress and demands of caring for a newborn.
- Risk of abuse and addiction: Regular alcohol consumption while breastfeeding (including heavy drinking and binge drinking) can increase the risk of alcohol abuse or substance use disorder.
- Ongoing challenges: The long-term effects of alcohol can cause serious health and personal problems for the mother, which can also impact the baby’s well-being.
Signs Your Baby Is Affected by Alcohol
These common signs can help you determine if your alcohol intake is affecting your baby.
However, these symptoms could also result from other health issues, so you should always consult your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis.
Signs of an infant impacted by alcohol intake include:
- Drowsiness or lethargy
- Decreased milk intake or feeding difficulties
- Irritability or fussiness
- Slow weight gain
- Decreased muscle tone
- Poor coordination or balance (i.e., delayed motor development)
What to Do if You Suspect Your Infant Is Affected by Alcohol
If you suspect that your infant may be affected by alcohol, it is important to take action immediately:
- Stop nursing or pumping and dispose of any milk pumped up to three hours after consuming alcohol.
- If your baby is showing signs of distress, seek medical attention immediately.
- Consult a healthcare provider or lactation specialist to determine the best course of action.
- If necessary, switch to formula feeding until the alcohol has completely cleared from your system.
- Consider seeking treatment for alcohol abuse if necessary.
It’s always wise to take a cautious approach and seek professional medical advice if you have concerns about alcohol’s impact on your breastfed baby.
How Much Alcohol Passes Into Breast Milk?
When a breastfeeding mother drinks alcohol, a small portion of it can end up in her breast milk.
On average, only about 2% or 5% to 6% (weight-adjusted maternal dose) of the alcohol she drinks will be present in both her milk and blood.
As long as the mom has a high alcohol content in her blood, it will also be in her milk.
Alcohol affects each person differently, and its effects can vary depending on factors like:
- Mother’s weight: Heavier women generally take longer to clear alcohol from their system than lighter women.
- Amount consumed: The more alcohol consumed, the longer it takes for the body to clear it, and the longer it will remain in the breast milk. Additionally, the higher the concentration of alcohol in the maternal blood, the more it will be present in breast milk.
- The rate of alcohol metabolism: The rate at which a mother’s body breaks down alcohol can vary and affects the level of alcohol in the blood and breast milk.
- The speed of alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol quickly will result in higher levels of intoxication than drinking it slowly.
Is It Safe to “Pump and Dump”?
“Pumping and dumping” is the practice of pumping breastmilk and discarding it after drinking alcohol. However, because the body generally takes a few hours to eliminate alcohol from the system, this process does not help.
If you still have alcohol in your bloodstream, newly produced milk will also have alcohol.
The only sure way to avoid passing alcohol to the baby is to wait until the alcohol has cleared your system before breastfeeding.
As a general rule of thumb, breastfeeding mothers should hold off on nursing for at least two to three hours after having a standard drink (12 ounces of 5% beer, 5 ounces of 12% wine, or 1.5 ounces of 40% spirits)—to allow the body to metabolize a portion of the alcohol.
Remember that everyone is different, so the amount of time it takes for alcohol to leave the system can vary.
To be safe and minimize the risk of alcohol exposure for the baby, breastfeeding mothers should limit or avoid alcoholic beverages altogether.
How to Get Help for Alcohol Use While Breastfeeding
If you struggle to cut back on or quit drinking while breastfeeding, many resources and treatments are available to help.
Many treatment centers offer special accommodations and support for mothers.
Remember that everyone’s situation is different, so consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best treatment plan for you.
You can make positive changes to benefit you and your baby with the right support.
Your Baby’s Health Is Important, and So Is Yours
If you’re finding it difficult to reduce or stop your alcohol intake while breastfeeding, don’t worry—you’re not alone. The well-being of both you and your baby is crucial, and many resources are available to help you overcome this challenge and live a healthy life.
Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit their Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at https://www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment to find treatment options in your area.
FAQs About Alcohol and Breastfeeding
How long do I have to wait to breastfeed after drinking alcohol?
The length of time you should wait to breastfeed after drinking alcohol depends on the amount of alcohol consumed and how quickly your body metabolizes it.
However, a general recommendation is to wait at least two to three hours after one standard drink to breastfeed to ensure the elimination of alcohol from your bloodstream.
How much alcohol does a baby get through breast milk?
The amount of alcohol a baby gets through breast milk will depend on the mother’s blood alcohol levels and how much she has consumed. However, on average, about 2% or 5% to 6% (weight-adjusted maternal dose) will pass into the breast milk.
What should I know about alcohol and breastfeeding?
It is best to avoid alcohol while breastfeeding as it can affect the quality and quantity of milk production and negatively impact the baby’s development and behavior.
If you choose to drink, do not breastfeed your baby until all the alcohol is out of your system—typically two to three hours after having a standard drink.
How do I know if my baby is affected by alcohol?
Common signs that a baby may be affected by alcohol include:
- Decreased milk intake
- Changes in infant sleep patterns
- Slow weight gain
- Poor coordination or balance
- Decreased muscle tone
However, these symptoms could also be due to other factors such as illness, growth spurts, or changes in routine. It is important to consult with a healthcare provider if you are concerned about your baby’s health.
How does alcohol affect a breastfeeding baby?
Alcohol passes through the mother’s breast milk to the baby, potentially causing impaired cognitive development, behavioral changes, and decreased milk intake.
It can also interfere with the mother’s milk ejection reflex, making it more difficult for lactating women to breastfeed. The more she drinks, the higher the risk of harm to her baby through the unsafe milk alcohol levels.