Alcohol & Breastfeeding. Do They Go Well Together?

Occasional drink planned between nursing sessions is OK for nursing moms, say local experts

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.

“It’s a topic moms ask about all the time,” said physician Jayne R. Charlamb, international board certified lactation consultant. “Moms are really discouraged to not have alcohol at all while pregnant. It’s different during breastfeeding.”

Charlamb serves as associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the division of breast health and breastfeeding medicine for SUNY Upstate Medical University.

“Early on, it can inhibit letdown,” she added. “Later on, the amount of alcohol in blood parallels that in breast milk.”

A woman consuming 1/2 to 1 ounce of liquor or 8 ounces of wine or two 12-ounce beers should wait two to three hours before breastfeeding, depending upon her size and tolerance level. Unlike during pregnancy, the alcohol doesn’t go directly to the baby.

Pregnant women should never drink alcohol. But while nursing, the baby’s not continuously connected to Mom for nutrition. Most providers agree that for nursing moms, an occasional drink planned between nursing sessions is OK.

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.

Charlamb said that babies who consume breast milk tainted by alcohol experience disrupted sleep and, with long term exposure, exhibit mildly affected motor development.

“Especially with a young baby, we want to avoid getting any alcohol into that baby,” she said. “Moms should make sure their infant is under the safe care of someone not drinking.”

Even three drinks can decrease the amount of breast milk by 20 percent and the time it takes for letdown by 30 to 40 seconds. That may not sound like a long time, unless parents are holding a hungry, inconsolable infant. Women who regularly drink are more likely to discontinue breastfeeding earlier because of decreasing supply and the disruption to the baby of switching back and forth between breast and bottle.

While drinking water during and after alcohol consumption may aid in minimizing hangover symptoms, 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 moms get clean milk faster.

“Alcohol passes into the breast milk through her blood stream,” said Kathryn Rome, a registered nurse and a board-certified lactation consultant with St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center. “Her blood alcohol level and breast milk alcohol level are the same. If you pump and feed your baby while there’s still alcohol in the bloodstream, there’s still alcohol in the milk.

“People think alcohol is stored in the breast milk but it passes through the bloodstream into the milk. The safe way is that a mother feeds her baby, has her one drink and allows two hours for her system to get back to normal,” said Rome.

Pumping may help keep breasts at a comfortable level of fullness. Moms who pump while drinking should not bottle feed their babies with that milk.

Some moms mistakenly think that drinking coffee will help them sober up faster. Laurel Sterling is a mom and registered dietitian, nutritionist and educator with Carlson Laboratories in Canastota. She said that strategy only dehydrates the body more.

“You’d need more water to compensate,” she said.

She also said that drinking a beer to stimulate milk production is a myth.

“Relaxation can help with letdown,” she said. “You could get that through Mother’s Milk tea,” she said.

She added that stress is a huge part of problems with milk letdown.

Instead of rushing around while nursing, moms who relax, get a big glass of water, take their time, and nurse regularly find that they develop a better milk supply.

Alternating between bottle feedings and nursing can make nursing more difficult.