Note: The Pregistry website includes expert reports on more than 2000 medications, 300 diseases, and 150 common exposures during pregnancy and lactation. For the topic Alcohol consumption during pregnancy, go here. These expert reports are free of charge and can be saved and shared.
During pregnancy, you’ve been cautioned about drinking alcohol, as the messages discouraging this are ubiquitous. But now that you’ve delivered your baby, is it safe to drink alcohol, even if you’re breastfeeding her? The good news is that the answer is yes, as long as you’re careful about it.
Effects on Mom
For many years, pregnant women were told to drink beer after delivery to help their milk come in. However, this is really an urban myth: beer does not increase your milk supply. In fact, because alcohol inhibits oxytocin, the hormone that causes contraction of the smooth muscle cells in the breast which then causes ejection of the milk, drinking may reduce the milk yield in breastfeeding women.
Several studies have been done to determine the effects of alcohol on length of breastfeeding. One study of 587 Australian women found that those who consumed more than two drinks per day were twice as likely to discontinue breastfeeding as those who drank two or fewer drinks per day. It should be noted that in Australia, up to two drinks per day for a lactating mother is considered “low risk,” three to four drinks per day is considered “risky,” and five or more drinks per day is considered “high risk.” Because alcohol is such an integral part of the culture in Australia, many studies on alcohol during lactation are done there.
Another study of 450 breastfeeding mothers in Australia found that consuming two drinks or less per day had no effect on length of breastfeeding. So both these studies, along with others, support the idea that engaging in modest or low-level drinking does not seem to affect length of breastfeeding, but heavier drinking shortens the duration of breastfeeding.
Also, be aware of the effects of alcohol on you as an individual, and use caution. If you are struggling with post-partum depression, it’s best to avoid alcohol, which acts as a depressant to the central nervous system. Alcohol obviously can also cause drowsiness and difficulty waking, so if you are already having trouble hearing your infant’s cries and waking to feed her, avoid alcohol for now.
Note that one alcoholic drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, or 1 ounce of hard liquor.
Effects on Baby
There is also ample evidence that modest or low-risk drinking has little effect on the baby. Alcohol is found in the breast milk at the same concentration as in maternal blood. In addition, newborns eliminate alcohol at a much lower rate than adults. However, the toxic metabolite of alcohol is not excreted into breast milk.
In all, even when a mother breastfeeds at the moment when the alcohol is highest in her bloodstream (about 30-60 minutes after ingesting the drink), the amount of alcohol a baby is exposed to is about 5-6% of the weight adjusted maternal dose, so very little will actually reach the baby.
And no long-term effects have been noted in studies of babies whose mothers drank at low levels during lactation. The second study mentioned above followed babies for a year. In those babies whose mothers drank two or fewer drinks per day, no difference was found in babies’ sleep or development.
But again, pay attention to what happens when you drink. Alcohol may change the taste of your milk, which your baby may find unpleasant.
Unlike in other countries, there is no “safe” amount of alcohol that US governmental agencies recommend for breastfeeding women. The general rule is to drink minimally (limiting your intake to one drink per day is a standard recommendation many health care providers use). And try to avoid breastfeeding for two hours after ingesting alcohol (so probably best to have that drink right after you finish a breastfeeding session).
If there is a special event in which you want to imbibe more extensively, then ask your health care provider about temporarily pumping and dumping so as to limit the alcohol exposure to your baby.
But rest assured, the answer is yes: you CAN have a beer when breastfeeding, and it’s safe for you and the baby.