Sorry baby, Mum's had a drink: The facts about drinking alcohol while breastfeeding
Conflicting advice about alcohol and breastfeeding sends new mother Barbara McCarthy on a quest for the real facts...
Published 14/07/2015 | 02:30
I was enjoying a rare glass of wine recently when a friend informed me that I may be better off giving up breastfeeding altogether if I was going to be drinking. She said it takes 13 hours for the alcohol to leave the system.
"For one drink? Oh no what have I done?"
I spent the rest of the evening quietly counting all the drinks I'd had in previous months. The pint and the whiskey and coke at Fleetwood Mac, the three pints I had after the rugby that time, the champagne and Jägermeister at my birthday.
Suffice to say, I gave my almost five-month-old daughter a bottle and waited some time before I nursed her on said occasions, but clearly I didn't wait long enough. The guilt was all consuming.
As I had done plenty of research, asked friends and the local health nurse about small amounts of alcohol and breastfeeding, I was shocked by this new revelation. This grey area business is tedious. Can I have a drink or can't I?
I didn't drink when I was pregnant, but I thought the odd long-awaited drink was grand now. On US breastfeeding forums, the purists will tell breastfeeding mothers to consider adoption if they have a few beers, while here people will say a few pints is fine. But what's a 'few'?
"Generally speaking if you can drive a car you can feed a baby," says lactation consultant Nicola O'Byrne. "It's not like when you're pregnant, where the alcohol goes straight through your placenta and can damage the baby," she said. "I think a lot of women in Ireland think that if they breastfeed, they can't drink at all and many stop in order to have a few beverages, but that's an awful shame," she said.
O'Byrne says it takes around two hours for the body to process one drink, depending on your body shape and whether you've eaten or not. What's one drink though?
A pint of Guinness has 2.3 units. One small glass of 11pc wine has 1.4 units, while one large glass of 15pc wine has over four units. If you drink three glasses then you have consumed 12 units of alcohol, which is just two units shy of the weekly recommended amount for women.
It can be confusing, so it's good to check. "If you are going to drink though, it's best to feed the baby before or even during, as the alcohol is highest between 30 and 90 minutes after consumption," she says.
Anyone who is heading on holidays can happily enjoy a lunchtime beer or two without the need to bottle-feed. If you are planning to go to the midwest USA though, beware.
A woman in Arkansas was arrested for feeding her baby in a restaurant after drinking 'several beers' according to the waitress. "Being a mom and just seeing something like that and seeing a baby that can't speak for itself having a parent do something like that is unacceptable," the waitress allegedly said.
The mother of three, who was in court for endangering her six-month-old-baby, said she didn't know it was illegal to have a few beers while feeding her child.
Luckily the chances of being cuffed for having a glass of wine with your meal in a pub or restaurant in Ireland are slim. Any time I've been out, I've been encouraged to have a Guinness 'for the iron.'
Mother-of-two Katie Vanston (27) said she couldn't have gone to Body and Soul festival this year had she not been breastfeeding her six-month-old daughter.
"Obviously there's nowhere to sterilise bottles or mix up formula, so it was so easy. We had a great time. She could just latch on wherever. When you breastfeed you spare yourself so much hassle."
Vanston says she never expresses her milk or uses formula. "I'm a bit of a hippy I guess. I fed my son for two years; I just found it so much easier.
"If I want to have a drink I give my baby a big feed, then maybe have a glass or two of wine and wait three to four hours for the next feed. Once the baby is older and sleeps longer you can have another drink, but I wouldn't go out on a mad one and lose the run of myself."
Mother-of-two Katharina Pfützner says the biggest risk of drinking is not being able to look after the baby properly.
"Needless to say when you drink you go into a deeper sleep, you are less likely to have quick reactions. It's especially true if you are co-sleeping with your little one," she said.
"I have both my children in bed with me at night. My four-year-old daughter only stopped breastfeeding around three weeks ago and I am still feeding my almost two-year-old son.
"I've done quite a lot of research and the benefits of breastfeeding far outreach having one or two drinks the odd time, as long as you leave a bit of a break between feeding."
"But how many babies breastfeed every few hours? Mine fed non-stop, so there was no recovery time," one friend said.
"I would never drink and breastfeed, she added. "Alcohol strips your body of vitamin B12 and it definitely affects the milk."
I didn't find any evidence to back up this statement and generally found research on the effects of alcohol on breast milk to be quite dated.
A study from 1974 suggests that more than two drinks may inhibit milk let down, while a landmark study of 400 breastfed babies in 1989 found that the babies of mothers who drank at least one drink per day showed slower motor development at the age of one year of age compared to babies who's mothers didn't drink every day.
A US-based breastfeeding mother, blogger and scientist posted more recent research online.
She drank one spirit and soda and took a milk sample after 30 minutes and again after two hours. When she went to test them, she found 0.014pc alcohol in the first sample and none in the second.
She concluded that the alcohol content in breast milk immediately after drinking is the equivalent to mixing one shot with 70 litres of mixer. Should you drink three shots it's like mixing it with 26 litres of mixer.
That's good news, but I'm unlikely to hit the town with a bottle of absinthe just yet. On the few occasions where I did go out it took me around four hours to get ready.
I had to pump my milk or prepare formula, feed the baby, then bring the pump with me in case I needed to relieve the pressure while I was out.
Then when I came home, the baby wanted to latch on and I had to gently force the bottle, then express more milk and so on. Then I felt guilty after and wondered why I had even bothered in the first place.
That said, you need a proper night out every now and then, especially after a lengthy abstinence.
Many women combine feed with formula so they have a little more freedom to do things away from the baby, but says doula Fiona Rea, if you introduce the bottle on a regular basis, it decreases the milk supply.
"You produce as much milk as you need, so it will affect your supply in the long run."
Once it's gone, it's gone and besides costing less money and having obvious health benefits, breastfeeding your baby is also environmentally friendly.
I've been shocked at the amount of waste one baby creates so it's a good thing I'm not adding to it with endless bottles.
"There is also a great sense of achievement among mothers who breastfeed their baby and though it's hard in the first few weeks, stick with it. It gets so much easier.
"Don't let having the odd drink be a deciding influence to stop or not even start," says Rea.
"In Ireland, breastfeeding levels are low among women, so it's important not to give them any reason not to do it."
Being a new mum is such a special time and because it's over so quickly, I've cherished every minute of feeding my child and seeing her grow.
Once she stops, I'll look back and wish I could do it all over again, despite missing my mad nights out from time to time.
If anyone is having difficulty breastfeeding, the local breastfeeding groups provided by the HSE are great, especially in the early days.
There's also a lot of support available in community groups where you can compare notes with other breastfeeding mothers.
Health & Living