Alcohol and Breastfeeding: What You Need to Know

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Numerous experiments have attempted to understand the relationships between alcohol and breastfeeding: whether newborns are exposed to the alcohol, the period of time when alcohol can enter breast milk, how long alcohol stays in breast milk, how many drinks is safe for a pregnant woman to consume, and the long-term negative effects of a baby’s exposure to alcohol through breast milk. There is a lot of evidence that substance misuse, including drinking alcohol or taking drugs, during a pregnancy can impact the short-term health of the fetus and long-term development after birth. However, the generally accepted view on drinking alcohol while nursing is a little less clear.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 percent of mothers chose to breastfeed their children right after birth. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that breastfeeding infants includes numerous benefits: reduced risk of asthma, allergies and type 2 diabetes.

Yet, more than half of Americans ages 18 and older reported in 2015 drinking at least one alcoholic drink per month, as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking alcohol, even harmlessly, is a routine occurrence for many adults. However, continuing the habit, or restarting it right after birth, can be harmful to the infant.


Alcohol, like any other food or liquid, passes through a mother’s breast milk. The more alcohol that is consumed, the longer amount of time is required for the substance to clear from the body. Even one drink of alcohol, though, can be exposed to a newborn.

Is it safe to take alcohol while breastfeeding? The answer is a bit complicated. The effects of combining alcohol and breastfeeding depends on a number of factors:

  • The amount of time between consuming alcohol and nursing
  • The number of alcoholic drinks consumed per day
  • How old the child is

Mothers who want to continue drinking alcohol despite breastfeeding should wait between three and four hours between finishing their drink and beginning nursing. Mothers also are advised against drinking alcohol right after birth. Beth Conover, a nurse practitioner at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska, told the website that newborns less than three months old have vulnerable brains and can be affected by exposure to substances such as alcohol.

The American Academy of Pediatrics states that a mother’s alcoholic consumption during nursing should be limited to one drink per day. Following that restriction, along with planning when breastfeeding takes place and how long after the alcoholic drink is finished, can prevent a newborn’s exposure to a harmful substance such as alcohol.

Alcohol and Breastfeeding: What You Need to Know
Each person is different, and their liver can process alcohol and other substances at a different rate. A few factors that determine how long alcohol stays in a person’s bloodstream are:

  • How much the person weighs
  • If food is ingested alongside the alcohol
  • How much the person usually drinks
  • The amount of alcohol being consumed

The generally accepted amount of time for a 140-pound woman’s liver to process alcohol out of the system is two hours per drink, meaning a drink that was finished at 7 p.m. will be out by 9 p.m. However, if a second drink is consumed before 9 p.m., the liver doesn’t even begin to process that one until after finishing its work with the first, meaning the second one won’t be completely out of a person’s bloodstream until 11 p.m.

Since alcohol moves through breast milk the same as it does a person’s bloodstream, the time frame is often identical. However, mixing alcohol and breastfeeding can have long-term effects if mothers do not plan their consumption around when their child will feed. Feeding right before drinking alcohol is better than feeding soon after. Additionally, the fewer drinks of alcohol the better, as one drink will be out of a mother’s bloodstream and breastmilk in around two hours.

According to the website, exposure to alcohol can affect a baby’s eating and sleeping, just as it can in adults. During the first four hours after a nursing mother consumes an alcoholic beverage, newborns take in 20 percent less nutritious milk due to the alcohol’s presence in the mother’s body. The website also cites a study of 400 breastfed babies, and the gross motor development skills for children whose mothers drank alcohol during the breastfeeding stage was lacking compared to children who were not exposed to alcohol.

Additional side effects that alcohol can have on newborns include sleep changes. Other negative impacts are:

  • Decreased milk production for the mother
  • A reduced consumption of breast milk during feeding
  • Weaker muscles as the infant grows
  • Increased risk for pseudo-Cushings syndrome, which is characterized by weight gain and diminished height.
There are numerous alternatives to drinking alcohol while breastfeeding. Since many people have one drink per day to relax, finding a replacement activity can be difficult. Enjoying an activity such as yoga or getting a massage can be a beneficial alternative, as can mastering the creation of non-alcoholic drinks. When out at a restaurant, a natural setting for adults to consume alcohol, ordering an appetizer instead can be a way for moms with newborns to enjoy a treat themselves and participate in the social outing while staying safe.

Consuming alcohol while breastfeeding can have long-term effects on a child’s motor development, in addition to short-term physical consequences such as not getting enough milk that is needed to develop bones and muscles. Breastfeeding moms who are addicted to alcohol, or are even reliant on just one or two drinks per day to relieve stress, should seek immediate help. Exposing infants to alcohol through breast milk can be extremely detrimental to the child’s physical growth. The Recovery Village can help people who struggle with alcohol addiction, no matter how severe their dependence might be on the substance.

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