Updated: Jun 16
Advice about the safety of drinking alcohol whilst breastfeeding varies widely depending upon the source. You may find yourself bombarded with conflicting information about whether a glass of bubbles or a few beers are safe for you to consume as a breastfeeding mother. You might have heard from a friend that it is totally fine to breastfeed after a few drinks, but you have almost certainly also heard that you need to pump and dump your milk after consuming alcohol. So what are the facts? Is it safe to have a glass of wine or two whilst breastfeeding? If so, how much? Does alcohol get into your milk supply - and is there ever a need to pump and dump after a drink?
The NHS, advises nursing and pumping mothers that, "An occasional drink is unlikely to harm your baby, especially if you wait at least 2 hours after having a drink before feeding...Regularly drinking above the recommended limits can be harmful for you and your baby." (1) The American Academy of Pediatrics has similar advice, adding that alcohol can impact milk production (2). These recommendations are based upon the fact that it takes around two hours after the consumption of alcohol for your blood alcohol levels to return to zero as a breastfeeding mother. If you choose to consume alcohol whilst breastfeeding, it is worth knowing that your blood alcohol levels peak after around 30-60 minutes, or 60 - 90 minutes if consumed with food (4). So if you want to minimise the amount of alcohol passed onto your nursling through your milk, it would be best to nurse them either as you are drinking an alcoholic beverage or an several hours after doing so.
Does Alcohol Pass into my Milk?
In short, the answer is yes - in tiny quantities. For example, if a 75kg woman were to consume six glasses of wine in quick succession, my blood alcohol level would peak at 0.17% (5). If I were to then breastfeed my baby, 5-6% of that alcohol would be passed on through my milk. This would mean that it would contain 0.01% alcohol. To put that into context, orange juice has an ABV measure of 0.07% (6). It is also with knowing that alcohol passes into and out of your milk freely as your body metabolizes it. Therefore, there is no need to pump and dump simply because you have had a glass of bubbles at a party. If you were to consume large amounts of alcohol, it would be advisable to wait at least a few hours until your blood alcohol levels were lower before nursing or pumping for your baby.
Whilst the amount of alcohol in your breast milk may be your primary concern as a nursing or pumping mama, it should not be the only consideration. For instance, if you choose to consume alcohol whilst breastfeeding, it is important to remember that you cannot safely bedshare with your baby after doing so (7). Additionally, it is likely that after multiple alcoholic drinks, you will feel tipsy or even drunk. In this case, your ability to care for your baby could be compromised because of the risks of falling and so on. Whilst it may well be safe for you to nurse your little one after a drink, caring for them safely could be the greater challenge. With this in mind, planning for another loving caregiver to look after your child after a particularly merry night out is advisable.
How Might my Child be Affected?
We have established that if you consume alcohol as a breastfeeding mother, tiny amounts will be passed onto your baby, if you nurse them within around two hours of having a drink. But how might even small amounts of alcohol affect your baby? This would depend upon several factors, including:
The age of your baby or child
The amount of alcohol consumed
The frequency with which alcohol is consumed
Younger babies are more readily affected by alcohol consumption than toddlers, for instance. Consuming large quantities of alcohol on a regular basis will also have a greater effect of your nursing child than an occasional drink or two. Some of known effects of regular, excessive alcohol consumption on breastfed babies include:
Nursing less frequently and consuming lower volumes of milk (8)
Decreased time spent in active sleep (9)
Negative effects on cognitive development and abilities (10)
For these reasons, regularly consuming large quantities of alcohol is not recommended for breastfeeding mothers at any stage of their nursing or pumping journey.
How Does Alcohol Affect Breastfeeding?
Alcohol use also influences breastfeeding in several ways that mothers should be made aware of. These include:
A temporary decrease in milk production
Inhibition of the milk-ejection (let down) reflex
Consequently, over time, excessive alcohol-use has been shown to be a factor in decreasing the amount of time that mothers breastfeed (11).
Informed and Empowered
As aforementioned, the side effects listed above have been found in nursing mothers who have consumed excessive amounts of alcohol and/or over prolonged periods of time. Drinking the occasional glass of fizz on a special occasion is generally considered safe to do - even when nursing your baby on demand. If you feel apprehensive about feeding your baby consuming breast milk which contains even tiny amounts of alcohol, simply wait a few hours before you do so. Breastfeeding or not, if ever you feel as though you are relying upon alcohol for your mental health or as a coping mechanism, please seek support from your GP or Health Visitor in the first instance. Cheers, mama.