Alcohol & Breastfeeding. Do They Go Well Together?

Lactation consultant in Rochester says many moms receive mixed information on alcohol and breast feeding

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Should nursing moms avoid alcohol? While alcohol doesn’t offer any benefits, lactation experts agree that those who drink may do so — with limitations.

Ellen Derby, certified lactation counselor and birth doula, has 17 years’ experience in the field. She said that whether breastfeeding or not, alcohol should be consumed only in moderation; however, “that doesn’t mean you can’t drink at all when pregnant.”

Derby, who operates Birth and Mother’s Milk Lactation Services, which serves the Rochester area, explained that while pregnant, babies are directly exposed to the alcohol the mother consumes. Pregnant women should never drink alcohol, she said. While nursing, the baby’s not continuously connected to mom for nutrition, so it’s OK to have an occasional drink.

“If you want to go to a party and have a drink, the thing to do is nurse your baby before you begin to imbibe — remember that it takes an hour to process 1 ounce of spirits, 6 ounces of wine or 10 ounces of beer,” Derby said. “The alcohol goes into our blood stream and back out in one hour. If you’re going to be at a big party and your baby will need to eat, don’t nurse while there’s alcohol in your system.”

The time it takes for alcohol to leave the body depends upon the individual’s tolerance level, which can lower after abstaining from alcohol for nine months, as well as through changes inherent to pregnancy.

Small babies need to nurse often all day and night long. Imbibing may be harder to do with a newborn through about 6 months.

“Breast milk is a blood product,” said Alison Spath, international board certified lactation consultant with Beautiful Birth Choices in Rochester. “If you have alcohol in the blood, it’s in the breast milk.”

Spath warned that moms who drink regularly or to excess, can find that their babies won’t nurse as much because alcohol affects the taste of breast milk and their milk supply can decrease.

“It takes a longer time for babies to eliminate alcohol,” Spath said. “We don’t want infants exposed to alcohol; it’s not safe.”

Even after a small exposure through the breast milk of light drinkers, infants don’t sleep as well. Those who drink more may have their babies gain weight more slowly and exhibit decreased gross motor development.

While drinking water during and after alcohol consumption may aid in minimizing hangover symptoms, Spath said that water won’t clear alcohol out of the system faster.

Expressing breast milk with a pump and disposing of it (known colloquially as “pump and dump”) doesn’t help, either.

“It doesn’t speed the alcohol leaving the milk,” Spath said. “The body has to metabolize it out of your blood and milk. You have to wait the one to two hours.”

Pumping may help keep breast at a comfortable level of fullness; however, it does nothing to clear out alcohol from the body since the blood alcohol level correlates with alcohol in breast milk. Moms who pump while drinking should not bottle feed their babies with that milk.

Spath said that some moms have told her they’ve heard that they should drink a beer a day to increase the milk supply.

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” she said. “It’s not true. More nursing or pumping will help you make more milk. There’s no solid evidence that anything mom eats will affect milk supply. Anecdotally, some things women claim makes a difference, like oatmeal, but there’s not research. We definitely want a breastfeeding mother to drink to thirst. Our bodies take from us what the baby needs.”

Relaxing with the baby and managing stress scan help improve milk let-down.

Dianne Cassidy, international board certified lactation consultant with an advanced lactation certificate and Bachelor of Science in maternal child health/lactation, operates Dianne Cassidy Consulting, in Rochester. She said that based upon what moms tell her, many moms receive mixed information on alcohol and breast feeding.

“It makes for a lot of confusion,” she said.

In addition to waiting around two hours or more for alcohol to clear the system, she advises moms to “plan on having someone else watch your baby. You shouldn’t make decisions while under the influence.”

That includes caring for the baby. Cassidy wants moms who drink and are going out with friends to arrange for childcare for the night.

“It’s not just alcohol in the milk but your behavior while drinking and taking care of a child.”

While she doesn’t think moms should deprive themselves if they want a drink, she urges them to make plans, know their limits, and not imbibe while caring for their infants.

“Like always, be safe about it,” Cassidy said. “Because you’re a breastfeeding mom doesn’t mean you have to give everything up.”