Should women drink alcohol when they’re breastfeeding?

Women shouldn't shy away from moderate drinking while breastfeeding, experts say. Dann Tardif / LWA

There’s definitely a case to be made for drinking after having a kid. For one thing, the mother has just undergone a voluntary nine-month detox, and for another, a glass of wine can help mitigate the stress of having a newborn at home. But the question of whether it’s safe to drink alcohol while breastfeeding still hangs in the air.

Dr. Jack Newman, a pediatrician and founder of the Newman Breastfeeding Clinic and Institute, says the question is less about alcohol and more about parenting.

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“Alcohol is a very special drug because it goes back and forth between breast milk and the mother’s blood as though it were water,” he says. “If you have alcohol in your blood, you’ll have it in your milk.”

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But that doesn’t mean new moms can’t drink. Newman says if you’re fine to legally drive with the amount of alcohol in your system, you’re fine to breastfeed too.

“The legal limit in Ontario is 0.05 per cent. Even non-alcoholic beer has more alcohol than that. As far as the amount of alcohol the baby would get if the mother was impaired, it would be negligible,” he says. “The real issue is if the mother is too impaired to respond to the needs of her baby.”

Newman often references a Facebook post written by a laboratory scientist who conducted tests on her breast milk immediately after drinking alcohol and two hours later (which has been espoused as the standard amount of time to wait between drinking and breastfeeding).

“She concluded that even a significant amount of alcohol [half a beer and two glasses of wine] would be the equivalent of dropping one ounce of alcohol into a gallon of water.”
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The confusion, experts say, comes from confounding pregnant women who drink with nursing moms who do the same.

“People tend to treat the two scenarios in the same way, but the mechanisms of exposure to alcohol are different,” says Kirsten Goa, chair of La Leche League Canada. “In utero, you’re sharing your bloodstream with your baby; if you’re drunk, your baby is even more drunk because they’re so small and their liver is still developing. But your breast milk only contains the same amount of alcohol as your bloodstream.”

“Some fermented foods like sauerkraut and kombucha have more than 0.05 per cent alcohol,” she says. “For your baby to get the equivalent of a non-alcoholic beer, you’d have to be ten times over the legal limit.”

The timing of drinking doesn’t matter, either. So, don’t be tempted to “pump and dump,” which is a waste of perfectly good milk, Newman says.

“Breastfeeding is a relationship between a child and mother, and if that child is old enough to be upset at not being fed, you’re doing more harm to the baby than if you were to breastfeed him after a couple of drinks,” he says.

The concern is that by making drinking while breastfeeding verboten, mothers may be discouraged from breastfeeding at all.

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“A lot of women will refrain from breastfeeding because the WHO recommends doing it for two years. When you tack two years onto the nine months mothers don’t drink during pregnancy, that’s pretty extreme,” Goa says.

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In cases of premature babies who are in the ICU, she advises laying off alcohol since they’re more sensitive, otherwise Goa says the only consideration with drinking is if you’re sober enough to parent.

“It’s more about parental function,” she says. “Even if you’re going on a bender and have someone to look after your baby, by the time you sober up, you can probably nurse.”

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