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Breastfeeding and Alcohol Consumption

By Angela Bowen, RN, PhD, and Lindsay Tumback, RD, MSc

Breastfeeding and Alcohol Consumption

Experts agree that there are no safe levels or safe times to drink alcohol during pregnancy because of the risks for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. But what about after baby is born? 1 in 4 care providers say the occasional beer is ok, especially if it helps with the let-down reflex. But what’s the truth?

Myth 1: Alcohol is a nutritious supplement for lactating moms

Busted! There’s no evidence that beer, from light to stout, is beneficial for either you or your baby during breastfeeding. It’s better to increase milk production through a healthy diet including plenty of non-alcoholic fluids.

Myth 2: Alcohol increases milk production

Busted! Alcohol blocks the release of oxytocin and further reduces it in your body, resulting in less milk and a diminished letdown. Alcohol’s negative effects on breastfeeding are present up to 2 hours after consumption. In one study, babies consumed 20% less breastmilk in the 4 hours after their mother’s imbibing. Because researchers can’t randomize moms and babies into studies that expose them to alcohol, we rely on animal research for further exploration. Significant work shows that alcohol even hampers the transfer of important immunity from mom to babe in the early stages of breastfeeding.

Myth 3: Alcohol promotes infant sleep

Busted! Your baby may doze sooner after nursing if you’ve been drinking but not longer. In a study among one group of nursing mothers, babies exposed to alcohol in breastmilk experienced reduced active sleep periods by as much as 25%. Mom’s sleep was affected too, including a decrease in important REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a critical sleep period essential to helping you manage your moods and stress. Those same moms experienced greater daytime fatigue, and those who drank before bedtime put their babies at greater risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), particularly if the drinking led to co-sleeping.

Myth 4: Alcohol is metabolized before it passes to baby

Busted! Alcohol is a water-soluble substance that flows quickly into breastmilk. And because of the increased water content in breastmilk, the alcohol becomes more concentrated in the breastmilk than in the mother’s body. For an average 5’4” woman, it takes 2-3 hours to clear even 1 ounce of alcohol from her system.

Myth 5: There are no ongoing effects to baby from mom’s drinking

Busted! Observation in humans confirms what animal studies show that alcohol consumption can limit a baby’s growth and weight gain, even more so than malnutrition! In one study of 400 breastfed babies and their mothers, gross motor development.

Myth 6: Drinking keeps baby nursing longer

Busted! Research shows that moms who consume 2+ alcoholic drinks a day weaned their babies earlier than moms who drank less or none at all. Breastfeeding rates are double among moms who don’t drink than among those who drink alcohol.

Myth 7: A drink is a drink

Busted! The CDC measures a drink as half-ounce of pure alcohol, 12 oz. of beer, 8 oz. of malt liquor, 5 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of liquor. In reality, people rarely measure their drinks, and there’s tendency to use larger glasses that hold far more than one drink. Be cautious about low-alcohol or alcohol-free drinks as most tested contain up to 2% ethanol.

BOTTOM LINE:

Don’t give up breastfeeding even if you occasionally drink. Best practices are to pump and store milk prior to drinking alcohol. Limit your drinking as much as possible and wait at least 2 hours before nursing your baby. Better yet, pump and discard the alcohol-tainted milk and serve your baby alcohol-free milk only, whether from the breast or stored breastmilk.

About the authors: Angela Bowen, RN, PhD, is an associate professor in the College of Nursing, and Lindsay Tumback, RD, MSc, is a graduate student in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.


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