Here’s what actually happens if you drink alcohol and breastfeed

You’re on vacation with your baby and a cold glass of rosé is calling your name.

A) you opt for lemonade to protect yourself from the stares of strangers as they judge, or b) order yourself a glass of ice-cold goodness (because God knows motherhood was hard enough without having to give it up).

Many breastfeeding parents will face the dilemma of whether to drink alcohol at some point and then breastfeed.

There is a lot of conflicting advice out there – and when words like ‘harmful’ and ‘your child’ are put into the same sentence, it can understandably cause a lot of worry and guilt.

But the reality is much more nuanced than a simple statement: drinking alcohol and then breastfeeding is harmful to your baby. As with everything on this planet, it’s all about moderation.

Comedian Katherine Ryan, 39, recently won the applause of many – but not all – mums after she posted a photo of herself drinking a glass of what appeared to be white wine while breastfeeding.

“Thank you for showing that it’s okay to drink wine while breastfeeding,” one person commented in response to the photo.

Another added: “Yes! I remember having a real fight with my boyfriend after my daughter was born [breastfeeding] and the head of breastfeeding support told me “you’ll be fine, have a glass of wine and relax at the end of the day if you can”. It’s a green light for me.”

But not everyone was convinced. “Why would anyone risk their young child’s liver having to process alcohol,” commented another user. “Alcohol in a child is not “good” or smart!! Express!!”

So is it ok to drink and breastfeed or not?

Health and breastfeeding specialists in the UK – we’re talking about the NHS, La Leche League – agree that when a breastfeeding parent drinks occasionally and limits their intake, the amount of alcohol the baby gets is not harmful. And research confirms it.

“The absolute amount of alcohol transferred into breast milk is generally low, and while we are constantly reviewing research, existing research indicates that occasional moderate drinking is not considered harmful to breastfed infants,” read the guidelines from the La Leche League website.

We know that alcohol can pass into breast milk (fairly easily) and then into the breastfed baby, but one glass of wine is unlikely to cause any problems.

According to the NCT, the mother’s blood alcohol level would need to reach 300mg/100ml before the baby is slightly sedated. In comparison, 80mg/100ml would not exceed alcohol consumption/driving limits in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If you’re concerned, the NHS recommends waiting at least two hours after having a drink before letting your child care for your baby, as alcohol should no longer be in your system by then. Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after ingestion.

Katherine Fisher, who has been working as a lactation consultant for 35 years, tells HuffPost UK: “It’s perfectly fine to drink alcohol while breastfeeding. But if you’re a heavy drinker, you’re putting your child at risk.”

He adds that this would mean “drinking alcohol all day, every day.”

In the UK it is recognized that regular drinking above the recommended limits – which is 14 units a week, FYI – can be harmful to you and your baby. Therefore, it is not recommended to consume more than two drinks a day.

In addition to the obvious health effects, drinking above moderate levels has been linked to sleep and developmental problems in infants. It can also reduce lactation, which means your baby gets less nourishment and can therefore affect growth.

There is also the fear that you will not be able to properly care for your child if he or she is intoxicated. Studies have linked alcohol consumption to an increased risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

So what can you do if you’re “going out”?

If you’re going on a night out, it can be helpful to express your milk early so your baby gets enough milk and doesn’t need an emergency refill in the middle of the night.

Sometimes you go out for “one” drink, only for one bevvy to turn into three or four. In this case, you may want to avoid breastfeeding for two to three hours for each drink you drink. The NHS recommends doing this to give the alcohol time to leave breast milk.

But even if you had to do an emergency feed at 3am, it’s worth noting that one study suggested that even in the theoretical case of binge drinking, children wouldn’t be exposed to “clinically relevant” amounts of alcohol.

Some people believe that you can express milk after drinking to remove alcohol-contaminated milk from your body – but this is a myth.

As long as you have alcohol in your system, any newly produced milk will also contain alcohol. The levels in milk will decrease as the alcohol level in the body decreases.

“If you’re social drinking or going to a party, you don’t have to pump and throw out or any of that,” says Fisher.

However, it may be helpful to express milk if you haven’t breastfed for a while and your breasts are full – because the engorgement is never game.


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