Is it safe to drink alcohol when you’re breastfeeding?

Expert guidance on whether it's safe to drink alcohol while breastfeeding plus mums' own experiences

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A couple of months after the birth of her twins, Beyonce shared a pic of her and husband Jay Z out on a date night and Instagram went into even bigger meltdown than usual.

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Why? Because Bey is sipping from a wine glass and, screams the internet, you can’t drink if you’re breastfeeding.

But is that really true? Is it safe to drink alcohol when you’re nursing your baby? And, even if it is, what effects does the alcohol you drink have on your baby? 

(Oh, and quick-but-important note: we don’t actually know if Beyonce is breastfeeding her twins or not…)

Firstly, is it safe?

Just for a change, there are a lot of differing opinions, but the most widely-held view is that the occasional alcoholic drink when breastfeeding is fine.

The official advice from the NHS is that, if you’re breastfeeding, the odd alcoholic drink is unlikely to do your baby any harm.

The NHS website states: “There’s some evidence that regularly drinking more than 2 units of alcohol a day while breastfeeding may affect your baby’s development. But an occasional drink is unlikely to harm your breastfed baby.

“It’s recommended that breastfeeding mothers have no more than 1 or 2 units of alcohol once or twice a week.”

You may find some GPs advising you to avoid alcohol, due to lack of clear evidence. GP Dr Una Duffy points out: “This is an area with lots of unknowns as it is hard to do ethical research on breastfeeding mums and their babies.”

However, if you would like to have the occasional drink, she prescribes a sensible approach. 

“On a practical level, an occasional alcohol intake, for example 1-2 units per week, is unlikely to harm a breastfeeding baby,” reassures Dr Duffy.

And remember, 1 unit is the equivalent of:

  • half a pint of lower strength lager, beer or cider
  • a single small (25ml) measure of a spirit such as vodka, gin or whisky

Surprisingly a small glass of wine (125ml) glass of wine comes in at 1.5 units, a medium glass (175ml) is 2.1 units, and a large glass (250ml) is 3 units.

So, what’s the safest way to drink alcohol when breastfeeding?

There are some steps you can take to reduce any risks.

1. Simple – don’t drink excessively. Keep to the safe level of 1-2 units.

2. On average it takes around 2 hours for 1 unit of alcohol to leave your body’s bloodstream. However, no one woman is average – everyone’s metabolism is different. So, try to leave as long as possible between drinking and breastfeeding.

3. Express before you have a drink. You can store the milk and then use it when your baby next needs a feed.

4. Wait until your baby is at least 3 months old. Lactation consultant Kelly Bonyata – who writes US parenting and breastfeeding blog Kellymom – explains:

“Always keep in mind the baby’s age when considering the effect of alcohol. A newborn has a very immature liver, so minute amounts of alcohol would be more of a burden. Up until around three months of age, infants detoxify alcohol at around half the rate of an adult. An older baby or toddler can metabolize the alcohol more quickly.”

On our forum, one mum explains what she does: “If I fancy a drink, I have it as soon as lo [little one] has gone to bed. I express for his dream feed so if I have a couple of glasses of wine in the evening I don’t have to feed him until at least 3am by which time the alcohol has gone.” 

How will I know when the alcohol has left my breastmilk?

Unfortunately, it isn’t an exact science, as it depends on a whole range of factors, including weight, percentage of body fat, and food eaten. 

Alcohol doesn’t accumulate in breastmilk, though, so as it leaves the blood it is also leaving the milk.

It’s thought to take around 2 hours for 1 unit of alcohol to leave the body. Expressing your milk, drinking a lot of water, resting, or drinking coffee do not speed up this rate.

There are products on sale though, such as alcohol testing strips (used by reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian), which claim to tell you when your breastmilk is booze-free.

Read our review of Milkscreen alcohol testing strips, from a mum who tried out the product for MFM while breastfeeding her 5-month-old daughter.  

What effects can drinking alcohol have on my baby?

“We know that alcohol does enter breastmilk in small amounts and that the more alcohol is taken, the higher the concentration of alcohol,” explains Dr Duffy. “There are potential problems of it affecting the taste of the milk, and at higher levels the baby’s brain and the baby’s liver.” 

Old wives’ tales might suggest that having a drink yourself before breastfeeding may help your baby sleep better. But the reverse appears to be true. A study by US researchers found that babies had more disturbed sleep for 3 hours after their breastfeeding mums drank one to two standard drinks.

Drinking alcohol may also reduce your ability to produce milk – more on this in a minute.

Ultimately, it’s your own personal decision. “It’s up to a mother to either accept a small potential risk or to play safe and have no risk at all,” acknowledges Dr Duffy.

Is it true that drinking can help ‘let down’ and milk flow?

No, it’s a myth. You may hear tales of alcohol helping mums feel less stressed, helping them to produce more milk, particularly in the ‘let down’ process, when the milk starts to flow to your nipple. But research from the University of Parma in Italy has found that drinking more can actually inhibit milk flow.

“In my grandmother’s day, breastfeeding mums were often advised on a bottle a day of stout or barley wine,” acknowledges Dr Duffy. “It probably relaxed the mother and therefore helped a bit with breastfeeding in that way, but we cannot be completely sure.”

What if I have a really big night coming up?

With weddings, barbecues, birthday and family celebrations often in the diary, you may want to plan ahead so you can enjoy a drink. 

If breastfeeding is well established then expressing beforehand can help quell fears about passing on the alcohol in your milk.

Plus having a supply of expressed milk – which can be kept in the fridge for up to 5 days or the freezer for 6 months – can be a safety net if you decide to have a few drinks.

Does ‘pumping and dumping’ help?

Experts agree that ‘pumping and dumping’ – expressing milk you’ve produced after drinking alcohol and then throwing it away – does not clear the alcohol out of your system any quicker.

However, it can be useful to get reduce breast engorgement, which may occur if you miss a feed because you’re out for the evening. 

What do our mums say about drinking alcohol while breastfeeding?

Our mums are pretty sensible about this – in several MFM forum threads about alcohol and breastfeeding.

“Yes, it is fine to have the odd glass of wine whilst breast feeding – I regularly had the odd glass or bottle of beer whilst I was breastfeeding,” says Babycakes-36671

“If you’re really concerned or you fancy more than one glass you could always express some milk beforehand. Enjoy that glass of wine – you deserve it!”

“As long as it is only a bit every now and then it will be absolutely fine,” adds EngelbertW_nkface“As others have said it leaves your milk at the same rate as your blood so if you have a drink straight after a feed your milk should be totally clear by the next feed.

“It actually takes about an hour for all the alcohol to get into your system so strictly speaking the best time to have a drink is WHILE you are feeding!! This always makes me feel very decadent and slightly naughty lol.

“One thing you might want to watch for, white wine has given both of mine bad wind a few hours later (long after the alcohol would have been absorbed), not sure why as they have both been fine with red wine but worth watching out for.”

– kia- also agrees, and says she enjoyed a little sip of spirit every now and then. “I had the odd sloe gin and lemonade when I was breastfeeding and Cole was fine – I only ever had the one (think i’d have passed out if i’d had more!). So long as you are sensible and have it during/after a feed its ok.” 

Images: Instagram/Beyonce

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