Breast milk nourishes infants, giving them the nutrients they need to grow up healthy and strong. A mother’s milk provides many benefits for the first six months of a baby’s life, including antibodies to help the child’s immune system to fight off viruses and bacteria.
Verywell Family notes in its report on the composition of breast milk that the lactose in breast milk supplies a baby with energy and also promotes healthy brain development.
Because breast milk is so important to a baby’s development, alcohol and breastfeeding are an unlikely combination, and for good reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise nursing mothers to abstain from all alcoholic beverages to ensure they nurse their young as safely as possible.
But is alcohol off-limits entirely to women who are in this stage of motherhood? No. While the CDC discourages alcohol use among nursing mothers, it also says moderate consumption of alcohol is not known to be harmful to a baby.
Women who are nursing but also want to have an occasional drink containing alcohol can follow the general rule of waiting at least two hours or more to breastfeed after having an alcoholic drink. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that waiting helps minimize the alcohol concentration in breast milk
According to LiveScience, alcohol levels in breast milk peak between 30 minutes to an hour if a woman drinks it on an empty stomach. Having a snack or meal while drinking slows down the rate at which the alcohol enters the bloodstream, and it is also metabolized slower.
Depending on an individual’s liver health and other factors, it can take the liver an hour to process 1 ounce of alcohol every hour, according to Medical News Today.
Determining What Moderate Alcohol Consumption Is
The CDC advises that guidance from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans can help determine what moderate consumption is. The guidelines say having up to one standard drink a day is the definition of moderate alcohol consumption for women who are age 21, the legal drinking age in the U.S., and older.
Deciding to drink alcohol while nursing is a personal decision. If you decide to do it, it is important that you determine what moderation is or what defines one standard drink. The idea of what is “standard” varies according to the drink you plan to have.
According to the Dietary Guidelines, an alcoholic drink-equivalent has 14 grams (0.6 fl oz) of pure alcohol. Many alcoholic beverages contain more alcohol than the standard guidelines suggest.
Why Alcohol Use and Breastfeeding Can Be Dangerous
While drinking alcohol in moderate doses may not be harmful to babies who rely on breast milk, alcohol and breastfeeding can be dangerous and have long-term effects on mom and baby.
One real danger of alcohol and breastfeeding is a person can easily drink more than the amount of alcohol considered “safe” to drink. This can happen if a woman does not realize or keep track that her drink exceeds the moderate amount. But it can also happen if her tolerance is high for alcohol, which causes her to drink more than recommended.
Various personal factors affect a person’s substance use habits, including their substance use history, genetics, mental health history, and other factors. A mother who has developed tolerance of alcohol over time may find herself craving more or feeling unsatisfied with a moderate amount.
This could prompt her to use more alcohol than recommended to get the results she’s looking for, especially if she is stressed or self-medicating for a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Not everyone can have moderate amounts of alcohol and stick with them.
For whatever reason, some people will use more of a harmful substance over time, whether it’s because they are dependent on it or addicted to it. When that happens, it could mean a person drinks larger amounts of alcohol, which stay in the body longer, and when that happens, it means alcohol stays in a woman’s breast milk longer.
If a mom is on a feeding schedule with her baby, her alcohol intake can interfere with that if she drinks too much alcohol without having that two-hour window to minimize its concentration in her system.
Alcohol Can Pass from Mom to Baby
Alcohol that enters the mother’s body gets into her bloodstream and her breast milk, and when she nurses, a fraction of what is in her system will be passed through the milk to the infant. A baby’s system is not developed enough to move alcohol out of the body as quickly as the system of an adult can. This means whatever amount of alcohol that is passed on to the baby will linger there longer until it clears.
This is where large amounts of alcohol in breast milk are harmful to a baby’s growth. Alcohol can impair a baby’s sleep patterns and the child’s ability to control their emotions.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends that newborns up to three months get 14 to 17 hours of sleep, and that infants four to 11 months old get 12 to 15 hours of sleep. These are general guidelines to follow, but they give parents and caregivers an idea of what their baby needs.
“Babies spend more than half of their time sleeping because this is a period of substantial growth,” NSF says. “Sleep allows the brain to develop, building networks and engaging in activity that facilitates thinking and learning as well as the formation of behavior. Sleep and nutrition also allow a baby to develop physically, growing bigger and acquiring better motor skills.”
For these reasons and more, growing babies cannot afford to have alcohol in their systems. Impairing their development at such a vulnerable stage could lead to early childhood learning problems and other challenges that could threaten their physical, mental, and emotional health.
Alcohol Can Affect Quality of Mother’s Breast Milk
Babies whose mothers drink alcohol can detect changes in the taste of their mothers’ milk, particularly if she nurses without ensuring her body has had enough time to process the alcohol. Drinking over extended periods can also affect the taste and quality of breast milk.
Higher levels of drinking while nursing an infant can affect a nursing mother’s milk ejection reflex. This is called the “letdown,” and it is when the breast naturally releases milk.
Another long-term danger of consuming alcohol while breastfeeding is drinking heavy amounts of alcohol can cut a nursing mother’s sessions short because she won’t be able to produce enough milk to feed her baby.According to the Mayo Clinic, research has shown that a decrease in breast milk could mean babies consume about 20% less breast milk than they normally do, a side effect that also could affect their development.
Alcohol Use Can Also Put Safety or Mom, Baby At Risk
It is widely known that alcohol can cause intoxication when consumed in heavy amounts or used frequently. Mothers who drink must know their limits. Going past those limits could jeopardize their ability to care for their baby safely.
Alcohol affects people differently based on age, size, weight, organ health, and much more. This means that even moderate amounts can affect someone to the point where they could experience changes in alertness, memory, and reasoning abilities that put their child at risk.
Alcohol is a drug, so when it enters the picture, anything can happen. The safest bet is to not use it if it can cause problems.
Getting Help for Alcohol Dependence, Addiction
The long-term dangers and effects of alcohol and breastfeeding can affect mother and baby long after the child leaves the infant stage. In addition to developmental delays a child could grow up with due to their mother’s alcohol use, the woman could be grappling with a dependence on alcohol that is also dangerous to her health and well-being.
Not everyone who drinks alcohol has a substance use disorder, but if attempts to drink moderately have led to heavy drinking, risky drinking, or other substance-using behaviors, it is possible that it is time for the drinker to get professional help for a substance use disorder.
Alcohol is not an easy substance to quit once a person starts drinking. But it is possible to do with the right help. Alcohol withdrawals are dangerous to manage without professional guidance. Without it, the person can end up relapsing and fall back into the habits they were trying to leave behind.
They could also end up losing their lives as withdrawal from alcohol can be deadly. It is safer to undergo a medical detox under the care of a medical staff addiction care professionals who understand addiction and recovery. Arete Recovery, located in Pembroke Pines, Florida, can help you with support and understanding. We offer recovery-focused programs at our full-service drug and alcohol treatment facility that address the whole person, not just their addiction. We will take your needs into consideration as you get on the path to sobriety.