Melanie K., a new mom who breastfeeds her twin girls, enjoys a bottle of beer every evening because "someone once told me that beer aids milk production." Breastfeeding mom Angie R. opts for wine. "I'd relax with a nice glass of wine," Angie says. "I can relax and not pass on stress and tension to my baby."
Drinking alcohol while breastfeeding is common among new mothers. According to Dr. Aaron Carroll and Dr. Rachel Vreeman, authors of Don’t Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health, 36 percent of breastfeeding women consumed alcohol three months after giving birth.
Research clearly states that alcohol makes its way into breast milk and can pass on to the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding regular consumption of alcohol while breastfeeding. Heavy drinking can impair breast milk let-down and cause baby to be sleepy or sluggish. The AAP advises that alcohol consumption can also contribute to slowed breathing and abnormal weight gain in an infant, as well as undo strain on a baby's liver.
How much is too much?
Willow Jarosh is a registered dietician and co-owner of a private nutrition practice and nutrition consulting business in Manhattan. Jarosh created WellRounded NYC, a pre- and postnatal nutrition and exercise program and advises, "Having an occasional drink is OK as long as it is limited to one small drink: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, 1-1/2 ounces of 80-proof spirits." Jarosh tells clients to wait at least two hours after drinking to resume breastfeeding.
Kathy Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., Clinical Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Texas Tech University School of Medicine, says, "I've had a couple of moms who wanted to party on their birthdays. I tell her if she has a lot to drink in a short amount of time, she may want to pump her milk and dump it for a couple of hours afterwards — or a bit longer."
What about beer?
Holistic health counselor Latham Thomas works with new moms in Tender Shoots Wellness, her lifestyle practice serving women along their journey into motherhood. Thomas encourages moms to drink stout Guinness. "Dark barley malt beers provide much-needed calories and help to relax the nerves," suggests Thomas. "Many mothers report an increase in milk production."
Thomas believes the benefit of drinking beer is twofold: the hops in dark beer increase the milk supply, and the ethanol in beer dilates the blood vessels to soften breast tissue, making it easier for the milk to flow. "In women who are having a particularly difficult time with nursing, 6 ounces of Guinness seems to be a perfect prescription," says Thomas.
Dr. Seth Finkelstein, who has an OB/GYN practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, disagrees. "Evidence shows that alcohol actually reduces milk production," advises Finkelstein. "Alcohol enters the bloodstream almost immediately and gets into the milk fairly quickly — it's hard to say exactly how long because of individual variables. But once the alcohol is cleared from the blood — after about two or three hours — the risk is over."
How much alcohol in breast milk?
Everyone's body processes alcohol differently. How one metabolizes alcohol depends on body weight, food intake and the type of alcohol consumed. La Leche League, the international breastfeeding advocacy group, says it takes up to three hours for one serving of beer or wine to be eliminated from the body of a 120-pound woman. Moms who worry that generalized guidelines are not enough may find peace of mind with Milkscreen (milkscreen.com). This simple over-the-counter test detects alcohol in breast milk and takes the guesswork away.
Milkscreen works like a pregnancy test, but instead of peeing on a stick, you saturate it with breast milk. Within two minutes, the test indicates whether or not the milk has enough alcohol to potentially harm the baby. Now Mom can know with certainty how much alcohol is concentrated in her breast milk and whether or not it may negatively impact her baby.
Information from research and experts is conflicting, so what should breastfeeding moms do? La Leche League advises women to nurse their children only when "completely sober."