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Alcohol and Breastfeeding Guidelines
Maternal alcohol use is a heavily debated topic. Avoiding alcohol while breastfeeding is certainly the safest decision for lactating women. However, moderate alcohol consumption (up to one standard drink per day) has not been linked to shorter breastfeeding duration or adverse outcomes in infants up to a year old. This is especially true for nursing mothers who wait at least two hours after consuming a single drink to breastfeed.
That said, if a mother ingests more than a moderate amount of alcohol, that intake could harm the infant. This is because newborns can be exposed to alcohol through breast milk, and their metabolism of alcohol works at about half the rate of adults.
The level of alcohol in breast milk is at its peak typically about 30 to 60 minutes after a mother consumes an alcoholic beverage. However, alcohol can still be detected in breast milk for about two to three hours per drink after consumption.
When Can I Breastfeed After Drinking Alcohol?
How long alcohol stays in a mother’s breast milk depends on how much alcohol that mother consumes, their body weight and metabolism, and how their body absorbs alcohol. The more drinks a nursing mom has, the longer all that alcohol will be in her bloodstream and, therefore, her breast milk.
If a mother drinks, she should wait a few hours before breastfeeding, if possible. Discarding pumped milk (the “pump and dump”) does not reduce the amount of alcohol in a mother’s breast milk.
Instead, the alcohol level will fall as the blood alcohol level decreases over time. A mother may still decide to stimulate their milk ejection reflex and express milk to feel more comfortable after alcohol intake. But this would be for their benefit, not the baby’s.
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Side Effects of Alcohol on Breastfed Babies
One obvious effect of alcohol in a baby’s milk intake is that it can cause the baby to experience drowsiness or weakness. These side effects may be readily apparent, but not all harm happens so quickly. Over time, exposure to alcohol can affect early development and infant sleep patterns. These issues can also lead to other physical and mental health complications such as impaired motor development.
Breastfeeding mothers’ impaired judgment due to alcohol consumption can impact their ability to care for their children safely. For example, severe impairment to the point of sickness means that a breastfeeding mom is preoccupied with their health instead of keeping alert of their baby’s needs.
For the same reason, a mother should never co-sleep with their infant after any alcohol intake (and especially not following excessive alcohol intake). Doing so can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), which refers to the unexplained death of a seemingly healthy baby that usually happens during sleep.
Moreover, excessive alcohol consumption (and especially binge drinking) could ultimately cause a mother’s milk supply to decrease. Less milk let-down can deprive the baby of necessary nutrients.
Risks of Drinking While Pregnant
There’s a wealth of conflicting advice out there about whether or not women can safely consume alcohol while breastfeeding. Existing research about drinking alcohol while breastfeeding is not quite as conclusive as the research surrounding the risks of drinking while pregnant.
While the effects that alcohol can have on a baby are related to just how much alcohol a mother consumes while breastfeeding, even just one regular glass of wine can risk a baby’s development. That’s because the alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to their baby via the umbilical cord.
The risks of consuming alcoholic drinks while pregnant include the following developmental, mental, and emotional issues:
- Low birth weight
- Premature birth
- Miscarriage (when the embryo or fetus dies before the 20th week of the pregnancy)
- Stillbirth (when the fetus dies after 20 weeks of pregnancy)
- Birth defects (such as hearing problems, heart complications, bone issues, kidney concerns, and more)
- Cognitive issues (such as a weak memory, a lack of attention, learning disabilities, speech and language delays, a low IQ, poor judgment skills, and more)
- Hyperactivity and behavioral issues (such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD))
- Mental health issues (such as anxiety and depression)
- Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (such as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder, Partial FAS, and Alcohol-Related Birth Defects)
- Risk of developing a dependence on alcohol or other substances
Prenatal alcohol exposure is one of the leading preventable reasons behind neurodevelopmental abnormalities and birth defects in the United States. An estimated 0.2 to 1.5 infants out of every 1,000 live births suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome disorder.
Simply put: It is unsafe to drink alcohol while pregnant.
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Drinking Red Wine While Pregnant: Is It Safe?
Women are recommended to steer clear of wine (and all alcohol) while pregnant due to the aforementioned risks of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. No amount of wine — not even a few ounces of wine — is deemed safe to consume while pregnant.
Pregnant women should stay away from even the occasional drink and any substance use, while nursing mothers should be mindful of the effects that the alcohol concentration in their maternal blood can have on their milk production.