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There are many misconceptions about drinking while breastfeeding and scientific research on the subject over the years has been limited. For new mothers, it can be difficult to figure out if they can have a drink or should avoid alcohol completely. You can find out the latest HSE health guidance and research on this page.
Can You Drink Alcohol While Breastfeeding
The harmful effects of alcohol during pregnancy are well-researched and have led to solid recommendations for pregnant women concerning alcohol intake. There is far less research into the consequences of alcohol intake whilst breastfeeding.
Those wondering whether you can drink while breastfeeding might be surprised to find that until recently the consensus was that alcohol was beneficial during breastfeeding, and many women were encouraged to drink alcohol while breastfeeding to promote lactation, relax, and help their baby sleep.
As more is understood about how much alcohol is transferred to an infant via breastfeeding, many clinicians now take a more cautious approach. The current recommendation by regulatory authorities is that breastfeeding mothers should abstain completely from alcohol intake until they no longer breastfeed or at least avoid breastfeeding in the hours immediately after alcohol intake.
Current HSE Advice on Breastfeeding in Ireland
The current advice from HSE Ireland on drinking alcohol while breastfeeding is to avoid drinking alcohol until a baby is one month old as during the first few weeks after birth you and your baby are getting used to breastfeeding (if you choose to breastfeed).
- feeding your baby before drinking alcohol
- expressing breast milk before drinking more than two standard drinks (one standard drink is half a pint of beer, a single measure of spirits, or a small glass of wine)
- waiting two hours after each standard drink before breastfeeding your baby
- drinking no more than 11 standard drinks in a week
- spreading drinks over the week
- having at least two alcohol-free days per week
- following the HSE Ireland low-risk drinking guidelines
HSE Ireland also advises that you may not be able to take care of your baby properly if under the influence of alcohol. Safety guidelines to follow if planning to drink include:
- never share a bed or sofa with your baby if alcohol has been consumed as this can increase the risk of cot death (sudden infant death syndrome).
- not drinking in the first month of your baby’s life
- waiting two hours per standard drink before breastfeeding
- if you think you will be drinking more than two standard drinks, plan to organise a babysitter
Alcohol’s Effect on Breastfeeding
Research has shown that drinking alcohol affects the duration of lactation with women drinking more than two drinks each day being almost twice as likely to stop breastfeeding after six months than women who reported drinking smaller amounts. It has been demonstrated that drinking alcohol can reduce the amount of milk a breastfeeding mother expresses which can mean your baby might not receive the nutrients it needs from breast milk alone.
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The Effects of Alcohol on Babies
Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after an alcoholic drink is consumed, and can be generally detected in breast milk for about two to three hours per drink after consumption. However, the length of time alcohol can be detected in breast milk will increase the more alcohol a mother consumes.
It has been reported that some of the effects research has suggested might occur are:
- that infants breastfed by women who had consumed alcohol prior to feeding ingested approximately 20% less milk in the first four hours after maternal alcohol consumption due to a reduction in the amount of milk produced
- changes in an infant’s sleep patterns
- decreased psychomotor development and reductions in cognitive abilities
- reduced abstract reasoning ability and academic scores in children at later ages.
However, there are still very few robust scientific studies on the subject.
Can pumping breast milk after drinking lower the alcohol content of breast milk?
No – the practice of “pump and dump” has been proven to be unfounded. The alcohol level in a mother’s milk is essentially the same as the alcohol level in a mother’s bloodstream and does not decrease due to expressing milk. Breast milk continues to contain alcohol as long as alcohol is still in the mother’s bloodstream. A mother could instead express milk before she has a drink and this could be used to bottle feed the baby when she has a drink.
Why Might a Woman Consume Alcohol While Breastfeeding?
This can be a beautiful but also highly stressful time and you may feel the desire to drink for a variety of reasons. If you are a new mother and think you might have a problem with drinking, you are not alone.
Many existing guidelines advise women to abstain from alcohol during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, yet it is still prevalent that new mothers drink more than advised.
Reasons for alcohol use during breastfeeding included:
- post-natal depression
- suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, sleep exhaustion, and the pressures of being a new mother
- difficulties in the home
- unclear advice from medical practitioners and family members
- a lack of awareness of the risks of infant exposure.
If you find that you are drinking excessively or can’t stop thinking about drinking alcohol; if you find that you are hiding your drinking from your partner and other family members; if your drinking is affecting the care you are giving to your baby, then you could have a drinking problem. See our resources at the bottom of this page for advice.
Risks of Addiction During Early Motherhood
Few studies address a woman drinking whilst breastfeeding, which presents potential dangers to you and your child. This time of transition can be extremely stressful with 10–15% of new mothers experiencing postpartum depression, a potential catalyst for problem drinking and alcoholism.
If you are a new mother, breastfeeding, and struggling with stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, boredom, or postpartum depression, or a history of mental illness, you may think about turning to drugs and alcohol to medicate your symptoms. If you have a history of alcohol or drug abuse, if you are a younger mother (perhaps a teenager), if you have past trauma, lack support from your partner, family or friends, and/or have a low income, live in a deprived area; you are at a higher risk of turning to alcohol beyond the suggested amount during early motherhood and while breastfeeding.
If you have a baby and find you are drinking excessively to cope then help is at hand
If you are a mother and need to talk to someone about how you are coping there are many places where you can get advice:
- HSE advice on bottle feeding
- CATCH Recovery – online therapy for alcohol problems.
- HSE Ireland Advice on breastfeeding and alcohol
- PANDAs Foundation for post-natal depression.
- Mum’s Aid – award-winning charity providing pregnant women and new mums with specialist counselling for emotional or mental health difficulties.
- Association of Breastfeeding Mums.