You love breastfeeding your baby — but sometimes a cold beer sounds tempting. Do you really have to give up alcohol entirely while you’re nursing your baby? Some mothers breastfeed for months or even years. What if you want to enjoy an alcoholic beverage before your baby is weaned?
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Obstetrician Kathryn Newton, MD, has the facts about alcohol and breastfeeding and how to keep your baby safe if you indulge.
Can breastfeeding moms drink alcohol?
Go enjoy the beer (safely): Alcohol is not off-limits when you’re nursing. You can consume alcohol if you know how to time it and how much you can safely consume.
It takes about two hours for the average adult to metabolize one drink. When you metabolize alcohol, your body processes and breaks it down. Once you’ve metabolized the alcohol, it’s out of your breast milk, too.
So, you can safely breastfeed about two hours after you’ve finished one drink. Wait four to five hours if you’ve had two drinks. You should feel “neurologically normal,” like you could safely drive a car before you nurse your baby again.
“The level of alcohol in your milk mimics the amount in your blood,” says Dr. Newton. “If your blood alcohol content is 0.10%, your breast milk will be the same level. So as your blood alcohol content drops, your breast milk alcohol content drops.”
The definition of one drink
Women (whether they’re breastfeeding or not) should limit alcohol consumption to about one drink per day. But one drink doesn’t always mean one glass. One standard drink is:
- 12 ounces of 5% beer (about one can).
- 8 ounces of 7% malt liquor (around the size of a standard drinking glass).
- 5 ounces of 12% wine (one glass).
- 1.5 ounces of 40% (80 proof) liquor (one shot).
When it comes to how many drinks you have, alcohol percentage matters, too. Some drinks contain a high amount of alcohol in a small volume. For instance, one 12-ounce glass of 9% alcohol-by-volume beer is like having two drinks, not one. Consider this when you’re counting the hours until you can nurse again.
Can my baby get drunk from breast milk?
If you nurse your baby too soon after drinking, your baby will consume alcohol, too. And babies cannot metabolize alcohol as quickly as adults, so they have longer exposure to it.
“Your baby probably won’t become drunk from breast milk,” says Dr. Newton. “But if you regularly have more than one drink a day, it can have negative effects on your nursing baby.”
Nursing babies who are regularly exposed to alcohol through breast milk may experience:
- Developmental and neurological problems.
- Sleep problems.
- Trouble gaining weight.
When to pump and dump
You may have heard that if you “pump and dump” — pump your breast milk and throw it out — you’ll get instantly safe milk. But this isn’t true. Pumping and dumping is not a quick solution to getting alcohol out of your breast milk. You still need to wait a minimum of two hours for one drink, whether you pump or not.
When can pump and dump help you out? “Pumping and dumping can be helpful if you’re drinking over a longer period,” says Dr. Newton.
“For instance, a mom might have a glass of champagne at a wedding and then another glass a few hours later,” she explains. “She’s away from her baby all night, and she starts to become engorged. In those cases, the mother can pump and dump to relieve her engorgement. But she should throw that milk away because it’s not safe for her baby.”
Alcohol and breast milk production
You may worry that having an occasional alcoholic drink might hurt your milk supply, but this usually isn’t the case.
“You can have a drink once or twice a week without experiencing an overall drop in your milk supply,” says Dr. Newton. “But moms who drink regularly tend to have lower milk supply than those who don’t drink at all. The letdown reflex is also delayed in people who drink regularly, which can result in the baby getting less milk.”
Don’t count on a glass of beer increasing your milk supply, either. Eat a healthy diet and drink plenty of water to optimize your milk output.
If you ever feel that your alcohol consumption may be higher than it should be or that it’s interfering with your ability to breastfeed, talk to your healthcare provider. Professionals can help evaluate your habits and suggest any changes necessary for your health and well-being along with your baby’s.
The bottom line: Breastfeed safely after drinking
The good news is that breastfeeding and alcohol aren’t mutually exclusive: A hankering for an occasional beer or glass of wine doesn’t have to get in the way of your breastfeeding experience. You can safely nurse your baby after the alcohol has left your breast milk. If you have questions about breastfeeding and alcohol, ask your doctor or lactation consultant.