What you need to know about alcohol and breastfeeding
By Sara Keli
We all know that alcohol during pregnancy is considered a big no-no, but there seems to be a grey area around alcohol and breastfeeding. Depending on who you ask, you may be given the green light to drink all you like, told to have a few glasses and simply “pump and dump”, or feel judged and shamed for even asking the question.
When it comes to the health and wellbeing of your baby, we know you don’t want to take any chances. So is drinking while breastfeeding harmful for your baby?
Do alcohol and breastfeeding mix?
The answer to this question isn’t cut and dried. It certainly isn’t a hard yes, but it seems it’s not a hard no either.
Alcohol stays in your breastmilk the same way it would stay in your blood. If you have a blood alcohol reading of 0.05, that would also be the amount of alcohol in your breastmilk. For example, if a standard drink usually takes two hours to leave your bloodstream, it will also take two hours to leave your breastmilk. (Also note that it can take 30-60 minutes for alcohol to enter your bloodstream after starting drinking.)
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises that not drinking while breastfeeding is the best option, and that women should avoid all alcohol until breastfeeding is well established.
But some studies say that low-level drinking is fine. One study, by the National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW and Deakin University, found that one glass a day caused no harm to the baby. Even the CDC says “Generally, moderate alcohol consumption by a breastfeeding mother (up to 1 standard drink per day) is not known to be harmful to the infant.”
What are the risks?
Excessive alcohol consumption while breastfeeding can possibly affect the baby’s early development and sleep patterns. It can also lower milk production.
Another concern is around caring for your baby after you’ve had a few drinks – your judgement may be impaired and you may not be as careful as usual.
Never co-sleep with your baby if you’ve been drinking, as this can be dangerous.
Alcohol, pumping, and bottle-feeding
If you’re planning a big night, can’t you just pack the breast pump and baby bottles to pump out the alcohol-affected milk (AKA “pump and dump”)? Unfortunately, no. Remember how we said that while you have alcohol in your bloodstream, you have alcohol in your breastmilk? Removing the milk from your breasts with a pump doesn’t change that. While you have alcohol in your bloodstream, any milk your breasts produce will also have alcohol in them.
What you can do is to have a plan in place for feeding your baby – and this is where the breast pump and baby bottles will come in handy! If you’re planning a big night, ensure you have adequate milk for your baby by pumping in advance. This will remove the worry and allow you to relax and enjoy yourself. (You can find reviews of milk storage bags and other feeding accessories on Tell Me Baby.)
In this case, you might still need the breast pump – but that is really for your comfort, as skipping feeds can play havoc on your breasts.
A personal choice
For many mothers, the alcohol and breastfeeding question is an easy one – they haven’t drunk for the nine months while they have been pregnant, so it’s no big deal to keep going while they are breastfeeding.
But sometimes there is an occasion that you might want to celebrate with a few glasses of champagne – or whatever reason you might want to have a drink. And there’s no judgement here! When it comes to this topic, it really is a personal choice. It’s about planning and preparing, thinking through the situation and ensuring that your baby isn’t going to be negatively impacted.
Your doctor or child health nurse will be the best source of information about alcohol and breastfeeding. You may also like to download the free Feed Safe app developed in conjunction with the Australian Breastfeeding Association: the app includes a timer which estimates, based on various factors you input, how long it will take for the alcohol from a standard drink to leave your breastmilk, and alert you when this time is up. The app also includes other helpful information that can help you make your decision around alcohol and breastfeeding.
At the end of the day, commonsense should prevail. Get good advice, think it through and have a plan in place. Cheers to that!