Alcohol and Breastfeeding
- Table of ContentsPrint
- Does Alcohol Transfer to Breastmilk?
- What Is “Pumping and Dumping?
- Does Alcohol in Breastmilk Harm the Baby?
- Can I Safely Drink While Breastfeeding?
- Addicted to Alcohol?
Many women are curious about whether they can drink alcohol while they are breastfeeding. While women are strongly advised to avoid drinking any alcohol during pregnancy, the recommendations on whether a woman can drink while breastfeeding are less defined and more controversial.
New mothers often receive conflicting information about the amount of alcohol that is considered “safe” to drink while breastfeeding. To date, there is no agreed-upon level of alcohol that is safe to have in your breast milk.
If a woman does drink alcohol, there are recommendations that she can follow, such as planning ahead and monitoring her blood alcohol content (BAC). It is important for women to take these necessary steps in order to prevent harming their child with alcohol-containing milk. Studies have demonstrated that infants who drink alcohol-containing milk may 1:
- Sweat heavily.
- Have poor muscle tone.
- Have poor feeding patterns.
- Grow poorly.
Does Alcohol Transfer to Breastmilk?
When a woman drinks alcohol, a percentage of the alcohol is passed freely into her breast milk. If a woman has been drinking alcohol, her milk will contain similar levels of alcohol to that of her BAC. As long as there is alcohol in the mother’s blood, the milk will also contain alcohol.
The peak alcohol levels in a mother’s blood and breast milk occur within 30 minutes to 1 hour of consuming the last drink. After this time, there are differences in how long it takes for a woman’s body to completely eliminate the alcohol 2. These differences may include weight, food intake, and hydration 3.
In order to prevent harmful effects to the baby, a mother’s consumption of alcohol should be minimized and limited to the occasional intake with no more than 0.5g alcohol per kg body weight consumed per sitting. For a 135-pound woman, this is approximately 4:
- 2 ounces of liquor.
- 8 ounces of wine.
- 2 beers.
Women who are breastfeeding should not breastfeed for at least 2 hours after drinking in order to minimize the concentration in the milk 5.
What Is “Pumping and Dumping?
You may have heard of women pumping their breast milk and discarding it in order to get the alcohol out of the breast milk quickly—also known as “pumping and dumping”.
This practice does not speed the removal of alcohol from the breast milk. Rather, it may be used to get rid of alcohol-laden milk when the mother needs to express her milk so she doesn’t use it to feed.
H3: Time It Takes to Eliminate Alcohol from Breastmilk
Pumping and dumping does not eliminate alcohol from breastmilk. It gets eliminated over time. The chart helps graph the time it takes for alcohol to clear out of your system. For example:
- If you are a 145-pound woman and you consumed 3 drinks in 1 hour, it will take roughly 7 hours for your breast milk to be completely alcohol-free.
- If you are a 185-pound woman, it will take approximately 6 hours 5.
If you're worried about the amount of alcohol in your breastmilk, there are products on the market that allow you to test your current levels.
Does Alcohol in Breastmilk Harm the Baby?
Studies find that breastfed infants consume approximately 20% less milk in the first 3 to 4 hours following their mother’s consumption of alcohol 6. This decrease in milk intake is not due to shorter feeding times or an alteration of the milk’s flavor. It is attributable to the reduced amount of milk that a woman’s body produces after consuming alcohol. Although babies consume less milk after the mother has consumed alcohol, the mothers are often unaware of the difference 6.
A mother’s regular alcohol consumption while breastfeeding can have other harmful effects on a newborn, such as altering infants’ 2:
- Sleep patterns: Small changes in babies’ sleep patterns have been noted in research studies. Studies have found that babies slept for significantly shorter periods of time after drinking milk from a mother who has consumed an alcoholic beverage—decreasing the amount of time the babies spent in the active (REM) sleep cycles.
- Motor development: A study following children from in utero to 1 year of age found that children born to women with high alcohol intake during breastfeeding had lower scores on psychomotor development tests. However, a later study was unable to reproduce these findings.
Breastfeeding and alcohol consumption is not as well researched as pregnancy and alcohol consumption. There are a limited number of studies on the topic, and the findings are generally not consistent. While significant alcohol use during pregnancy produces predictable negative effects like fetal alcohol syndrome, alcohol use among breastfeeding mothers produces more mixed results 7. This contributes to medical providers’ difficulty in providing strict guidelines on drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.
However, as shown above, there are links between alcohol use during breastfeeding and effects on infant’s sleep, quantity of milk consumption, and psychomotor development. Alcohol-containing milk can potentially harm breastfeeding infants, and there are ways to reduce or prevent this from occurring.
I’ve Heard Alcohol Helps a Mother’s Milk Supply
You might have heard from your grandmother, neighbor, or on an internet forum that alcohol actually helps increase your milk supply. However, research shows that when babies are given alcohol-containing milk, they can have trouble breastfeeding and may experience altered feeding patterns 8. [/callout]
This can contribute to a decreased milk supply. Here's why: Two pituitary hormones are primarily responsible for controlling the process of breastfeeding: prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin, specifically, stimulates milk production, while oxytocin works to contract the muscles around the mammary tissue to release milk from the breast 6.
When babies feed less, less prolactin gets released. Prolactin is released when the baby is sucking at the breast. This release sends a signal to the body to create new milk before the next feeding. The amount of prolactin that is released depends on the baby’s level of sucking, so if your baby begins feeding/sucking less, you will produce a lowered amount of prolactin. Less prolactin signals to your body that you need less milk–decreasing your overall supply 2.
Research has also found that alcohol may also inhibit oxytocin (depending on the dose ingested) 6, further decreasing the milk yield and the inability of the baby to feed.
This means that drinking alcohol while lactating actually decreases the amount of milk your body produces 8.
Can I Safely Drink While Breastfeeding?
You might still be wondering; can I drink at all while I am breastfeeding? The current recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is based on a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach. They advise that the safest route is to not drink and breastfeed 2.
However, if you plan to consume alcohol while lactating, here are some tips that will help you plan ahead:
- Consider the timing of when you drink. Don’t breastfeed your baby while you are drinking or soon after you have stopped drinking. It is best to wait several hours after you have stopped drinking. Your body needs time to eliminate all alcohol in your blood and milk. You can refer to the graph above to see how long your body would take to eliminate alcohol according to your weight and number of drinks consumed.
- Pump and store your milk before you drink. If you know you are going to have a drink, you can pump your breast milk beforehand and keep it in a bottle. Your baby can drink the unaltered milk from the bottle while you wait for the alcohol to be eliminated from your breast milk.
Another option is to feed your baby formula. However, it is important to keep in mind that if you have a few drinks, it does not mean that you should stop breastfeeding altogether. Breast milk is the optimal way to feed a newborn. If you stop breastfeeding, your baby will miss out on precious and vital nutrients that are crucial to their development.
Many women resume drinking after the birth of their child. Approximately half of women who breastfeed in Western countries report drinking alcohol—at least occasionally 7. The important thing is to be smart about your alcohol intake and to avoid feeding alcohol-laden milk to your baby. Knowing about the timing of how alcohol transfers to your milk and the potential effects it can have on your child is vital to the health and well-being of your baby. This information can help you make healthy decisions and ease any anxiety you have about drinking and breastfeeding.
Addicted to Alcohol?
Even when newborn babies aren’t part of the equation, alcohol addiction is highly stigmatized. Most people don’t feel like they can tell their doctor or family about their dependence on alcohol. They might feel ashamed and hide using alcohol from others. Remember, there are numerous options to help you recover from alcohol addiction.
If you find yourself unable to stop drinking, you may want to consider seeking help for an addiction to alcohol. There are options for addiction recovery, such as:
- Inpatient treatment: These facilities require that you live at the treatment facility for the duration of the program. These centers offer 24/7 access to medical care, and some offer detox services, as well, which is especially important for those experiencing the serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. If you have a severe addiction, you may want to seriously consider this option.
- Outpatient treatment: Those being treated on an outpatient basis travel to the clinic or treatment center for up to several hours a day for several days a week to meet for substance abuse therapy and treatment. Outpatient care is often more affordable than inpatient treatment. These facilities also offer you the flexibility of living at home while actively working towards recovery. If you are a new mother, this might be an excellent option for you.
- 12-step groups: There are a number of groups that offer a structured space to help you on your road to recovery. Groups such as Women For Sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous are great places to start. These groups match you with a sponsor who helps keep you accountable on your journey towards a life without alcohol.
Alcohol, or ethanol, is one of the top substances among treatment attendees, according to a 2017 Recovery Brands survey. Nearly 70% of survey respondents struggled with alcohol abuse, and almost 53% of people cited alcohol as the substance that they received the most treatment for. Despite receiving treatment for numerous other substances, the most troublesome one is alcohol. Fortunately, these days treatment for alcohol abuse is widely available. Call our helpline at 1-888-744-0069Who Answers? to begin recovering from alcohol abuse today.
Regardless of where you are in your journey to reduce or stop your alcohol consumption, there is support available. By understanding the risks of drinking alcohol while breastfeeding and taking steps to eliminate these risks, you are making your child’s health a priority.
- Herron, A., and Brennan, T. (2015). The ASAM Essentials of Addiction Medicine: Second Edition. Wolters Kluwer.
- Mennella, J. (2001). Alcohol's effect on lactation. Alcohol research and health, 25(3), 230-234.
- University of Notre Dame. (n.d.). Absorption Rate Factors.
- Gartner, L. M., Morton, J., Lawrence, R. A., Naylor, A. J., O'Hare, D., Schanler, R. J., & Eidelman, A. I. (2005). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 115(2), 496-506.
- Gartner, L. M., Morton, J., Lawrence, R. A., Naylor, A. J., O'Hare, D., Schanler, R. J., & Eidelman, A. I. (2005).Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 115(2), 496-506.
- Haastrup, M. B., Pottegård, A., & Damkier, P. (2014). Alcohol and breastfeeding. Basic & clinical pharmacology & toxicology, 114(2), 168-173.
- Reece-Stremtan, S., & Marinelli, K. A. (2015).
ABM clinical protocol# 21: guidelines for breastfeeding and substance use or substance use disorder, revised 2015. Breastfeeding Medicine, 10(3), 135-141.
- McHugh, R. K., Wigderson, S., & Greenfield, S. F. (2014). Epidemiology of substance use in reproductive-age women. Obstetrics and gynecology clinics of North America, 41(2), 177-189.