Breastfeeding and Alcohol: Risks and Precautions
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With advice changing all the time and there being many misconceptions about drinking while breastfeeding, it can be difficult to figure out whether you can breastfeed while drinking alcohol. On this page, we discuss some of the latest NHS guidance and scientific research on the subject. If you are struggling to control your drinking you can get some professional advice on the links at the bottom of this page.
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Can I Drink Alcohol While Breastfeeding?
The harmful effects of alcohol during pregnancy are well-researched and have led to recommendated restrictions for pregnant women thinking of drinking alcohol. There is far less research into the consequences of alcohol intake whilst breastfeeding than during pregnancy.
Those wondering whether you can drink while breastfeeding might be surprised to find that until recently some clinicians gave out guidance 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 and nutrients are 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.
NHS Advice on Breastfeeding & Alcohol
Can you drink alcohol while breastfeeding? This is what the government has to say about it.
The current advice from NHS England while breastfeeding is to rest, be well in yourself, and let your baby breastfeed whenever they want to help increase your milk supply. Effective, frequent feeding is the best way to increase supply.
If you choose to drink while breastfeeding or during early motherhood, the NHS England advice is to:
- never share a bed or sofa with your baby if you have drunk any alcohol. Doing this has a strong association with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- keep health risks from alcohol to a low level by not drinking more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
- spread your drinking evenly over three or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units per week
- have several drink-free days each week if you wish to cut down the amount you drink
- speak with your health visitor or GP if you regularly drink more than 14 units a week
To manage social occasions, NHS England suggests:
- avoiding breastfeeding for two to three hours for every drink you consume to avoid exposing your baby to any alcohol in your milk
- expressing some milk before a social function, skipping the first feed after the function, and feeding your baby with your expressed milk instead
- bearing in mind that your breasts may become uncomfortably full if you leave long gaps between feeds
- not expressing as a way to clear your milk of alcohol. The level of alcohol in your milk will fall as the level of alcohol in your body falls.
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NHS England also warns of the risks of binge drinking while breastfeeding:
- Binge drinking, where you have more than six units of alcohol in one sitting may make you less aware of your baby’s needs
- If you do binge drink, your baby should be cared for by an adult who has not had any alcohol
- You may want to express for comfort and to maintain your milk supply
- If you regularly binge drink, you may find it helpful to discuss this with your health visitor or GP.
Alcohol’s Effect on Breastfeeding
It has been shown that alcohol can reduce the amount of milk a breastfeeding mother expresses which can mean your baby doesn’t receive the nutrients it needs from breast milk alone. Research has also demonstrated 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.
Alcohol’s Effect on Infants
Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after an alcoholic beverage 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.
Some of the effects research has suggested might occur with excessive alcohol consumption during breastfeeding 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.
Scientific research is still limited and more is needed to give a clearer picture. While the effect of long-term exposure to alcohol while breastfeeding remains largely unknown, mothers are encouraged to comply with standard recommendations from healthcare authorities on alcohol intake.
Why Do Women Consume Alcohol While Breastfeeding?
If you are pregnant or a new mother and think you might have a problem with drinking, you are not alone. This can be a beautiful but also highly stressful time and you may feel the desire to drink for a variety of reasons.
Nearly all new mothers go through a period when they will feel anxious, exhausted, and under pressure. In a small number of cases, motherhood can sometimes result in depression and anxiety, and post-natal depression. This might lead to some mothers attempting to self-medicate through alcohol use.
Advice from well-meaning friends and relatives can contain the wrong messages and sometimes even healthcare practitioners might have out-of-date guidelines.
Having a baby is a joyous event and one of life’s most celebrated experiences and breastfeeding is hugely rewarding and beneficial. But it’s not uncommon for a new mother to feel left out of the celebrations when everyone around her is drinking and she isn’t. It is another reminder that life has changed with the birth of a new baby. Our culture uses alcohol to celebrate life events and it can be difficult to say no when everyone around you is drinking.
If you find that you are drinking excessively or can’t stop thinking about drinking, you find that you are hiding your drinking from your partner, or that it 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.
Can Expressing/Pumping Breast Milk After Drinking Alcohol Lower the Alcohol Content of Breastmilk?
No – the expression “pump and dump” has been proven to be false. 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.
Risks of Addiction During Early Motherhood
New motherhood is an overwhelming time of transition and 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 are younger (perhaps a teenager), have a history of alcohol abuse, a past trauma, lack support from family, partner, or friends, and/or have a reduced income, 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 need to talk to someone about how you are coping there are many places where you can get advice:
You can contact us at Castle Craig for information about residential rehab.
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With a wealth of knowledge and services to help you take back control of your drinking, request a call-back from one of our professionals today. The choice you make today could change your life forever.