If you’ve decided to breastfeed your baby you may have questions about drinking alcohol whilst breastfeeding. Advice is not to drink alcohol during pregnancy, advice on what to do after the baby’s been born may not be so clear to you.

Effects of drinking and breastfeeding

Levels of alcohol in breast milk remain close to those in the mother’s bloodstream. Levels will be at their highest between 30 and 60 minutes after drinking, or 60-90 minutes if you’ve been drinking with a meal. It takes one to two hours for a unit of alcohol (a small glass of wine, or half a pint of ordinary-strength beer) to clear from a mother's blood.1

If you’re breastfeeding and have drunk alcohol, your baby’s sleep patterns may be disrupted. A study has found that babies that had alcohol via breast milk slept for 25% less time than those that had no alcohol.

Research has also shown that alcohol can reduce the amount of milk breastfeeding women produce. This may be due to alcohol disrupting the hormones that control the production of breast milk.2  Other studies have shown that babies take around 20% less milk if there’s alcohol present3, so they’ll need to feed more often. 

Did you know?

It takes two hours for a unit of alcohol to leave a mother's blood

Breastfeeding consultant and former maternity nurse, Geraldine Miskin, suggests that mothers who do want a drink could have one with a meal shortly after a feed, so there is time to process the alcohol before baby needs to feed again.

In general, it is good to follow the UK's Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidance that people should not regularly drink more than 14 units a week. If you do choose to drink, it is best to spread your drinks evenly throughout the week.  If you wish to cut down the amount you are drinking, a good way to do this is to have several drink-free days per week.

Choosing what is right for you

However, Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), believes that saying it’s fine to drink in moderation sends out the wrong signals.
“The RCM advises abstinence in pregnancy and during breastfeeding,” says Janet. “In the light of all the evidence, we believe cumulative alcohol consumption can be harmful to mother and baby.”

Telling women that it’s OK to drink in moderation can be dangerous, Janet says. “What is moderation? If someone is consuming alcohol regularly, it’s very easy for them to drink more than they intended and increase the risk. Mothers with post-natal depression or those who lack support could be more likely to do this. Women who nurse their infants in bed need to be especially careful. “If you are co-sleeping, you must never consume alcohol because of the danger of suffocation,” says Janet. “The same applies to your partner.”

However, while abstinence is the College’s official policy, also called Janet, stresses that midwives are encouraged to take an individual’s circumstances into account. “We’re not trying to tell people how to live their lives. If someone says ‘I’m going off to a wedding, can I have a glass of champagne?’ that’s different.”

Want some practical advice on how to cut down? Try these things to reduce your drinking

References

(1) NHS Choices website. Is it safe to drink alcohol while breastfeeding? The Information Standard member organisation. Last reviewed: 15/05/2015. Available at:
http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/958.aspx?CategoryID=54&SubCategoryID=135#close
(2) Mennella, J. A. & Gerrish, C. J. (1998). Effects of exposure to alcohol in mother's milk on infant sleep. Pediatrics, 101, E2. Accessed: 24 February 2016. Available at:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9565435
(3) Haastrup, M. B., Pottegård, A. & Damkier, P. (2014). Alcohol and Breastfeeding. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology, 114, 168-173. Accessed: 24 February 2016. Available at:
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bcpt.12149/full
(4) Mennella, J. A. & Beauchamp, G. K. (1991). The transfer of alcohol to human milk. Effects on flavor and the infant's behavior. N Engl J Med, 325, 981-5. Accessed 24 February 2016. Available at:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1886634