Pregnancy advice on alcohol is clear but is drinking alcohol when you’re breastfeeding harmful to your baby too? Here we look at the facts.
So can I drink alcohol when I’m breastfeeding?
Many new mums want to know this, especially if they’ve been careful not to drink during their pregnancy. Sorry to tell you but the safest approach is not to drink at all if you’re breastfeeding, as alcohol can find its way into your breastmilk (RCOG, 2018).
If you do want a drink and you’re breastfeeding, experts recommend that you have no more than one or two units of alcohol once or twice a week (NHS, 2018a).
One unit of alcohol is 10ml of pure alcohol. This is:
- 25ml of a spirit like vodka or gin, i.e. one ‘single’ pub measure
- Around half a 175ml glass of wine or champagne — one 175ml glass is two units
- 2/3 of a 125ml glass of wine
- A half pint of 'weak' beer or lager
- A quarter of a pint of ‘strong’ beer or cider
- 2/3 of a bottle of alcopop.
Remember that 'home' measures might be larger than these, so take that into consideration if you are drinking while breastfeeding.
What are the effects of drinking alcohol while breastfeeding?
The amount of alcohol a baby takes in through breastmilk is very small. Estimates range from 2% to 5% of the alcohol consumed by the mum (Haastrup et al, 2014; Mennella, 2018).
One study suggests that ‘low level of drinking’ is not linked to a shorter duration of breastfeeding or adverse outcomes in babies up to 12 months (Wilson et al., 2017).
But there is very little research on the effects of such small amounts of alcohol on a developing baby. The available research does suggest that drinking alcohol while breastfeeding might have the following effects:
Effects on milk supply
People used to think that moderate beer consumption might help to start off breastfeeding. Mums were actually encouraged to drink alcohol to help them relax and encourage their milk supply (Koletzko and Lehner, 2000).
Research now suggests it’s the barley and hops that might increase a mum’s milk supply rather than the alcohol. That’s because the effect was similar whether it was alcoholic beer or non-alcoholic beer (Lactmed, 2019).
The alcohol, on the other hand, can actually inhibit the milk ejection reflex of breastfeeding. This can mean a temporary decrease in milk production (Mennella, 1998). If you’re concerned about low milk production, it might be a good idea to avoid alcohol while you’re breastfeeding.
Effects on baby’s sleep
Another myth about having an alcoholic drink while breastfeeding is that it relaxes your baby and helps them sleep. Yet studies have shown that a mum’s alcohol consumption while breastfeeding might actually negatively effect their child’s sleep. Babies exposed to alcohol through breastmilk might sleep for shorter periods but more often during the day (Mennella and Beauchamp, 1991).
Another study found that babies slept about 25% less after their mothers drank one or two alcoholic drinks than when they didn’t drink (Mennella and Gerrish, 1998).
Effects on the ability to take care of your baby
Alcohol can impair your judgment and reaction time — both of which are important when taking care of a baby. A few drinks can make you less aware of what your baby needs (NHS, 2018). If you do plan to drink heavily, make sure a sober adult is around to help with looking after your baby (NHS Choices, 2018).
Never share a bed, armchair or sofa with your baby if you have had any alcohol, as this has been strongly linked to an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (NHS, 2018).
When breastfeeding, how long does it take for alcohol to leave my system?
Around 30 to 60 minutes after you drink you’ll have the highest concentration of alcohol in your breastmilk. It’ll take 30 to 90 minutes to reach this maximum if you’ve been eating too. The alcohol concentration in your breastmilk declines at the same rate as it does in your blood (Mennella, 2018).
It’s best to avoid breastfeeding for two to three hours per unit of alcohol after drinking to minimise the concentration of alcohol in your breastmilk. But you’ll need to make sure breastfeeding is well-established before you try this (NHS, 2018).
‘Pump and dump’
So-called ‘pumping and dumping’ is when women express or ‘pump’ their breastmilk and discard/’dump’ the milk. Some mums believe that this will ‘get rid’ of the alcohol so they can breastfeed their baby afterwards.
The snag is that your breastmilk will have the same alcohol concentration as your blood. So pumping and dumping immediately after drinking alcohol doesn’t speed up the disappearance of alcohol from the milk. The newly produced milk will contain alcohol as long as the mother has measurable blood alcohol levels (Mennella, 2018).
All your body needs is time to metabolise the alcohol so there’s no more left in your breastmilk.
There is no need to ‘pump and dump’ milk unless you’re experiencing discomfort from your breasts being too full. If you’re separated from your baby for a few hours, you might wish to express milk (by hand or using a pump) for comfort, but also to prevent blocked ducts or mastitis.
If you’re not sure how much you might end up drinking, you could plan ahead by expressing some milk beforehand. You can then skip the first breastfeed after the event and feed your baby with your previously expressed milk instead (NHS, 2018).
Tips on cutting down on alcohol while breastfeeding
If you normally enjoy a drink and want to cut down on alcohol when breastfeeding, these ideas may help:
- If you’re going out, make a plan and set a budget to spend on alcohol that you stick to.
- Buy a smaller drink, or choose something that isn’t as strong.
- Quench your thirst with non-alcoholic drinks or mocktails and stay hydrated by drinking water between alcoholic drinks.
- Sip your drink and put it down between sips.
- Ask family and friends to support you by not offering to pour or prepare you drinks.
- Make some of the days of the week alcohol free and don’t drink more than two units on the other days.
If you drink a lot and are worried about how to cut down, then talk to your midwife or family doctor. Alternatively, you can call one of the helplines listed below.
This page was last reviewed in June 2019.
NCT supports all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.
You might find attending one of our Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you're worried about your drinking, you can call the free number 24 hours a day: 0800 917 8282
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a self-help group for anyone with alcohol problems. National Helpline number 0845 769 7555. There are also regular support groups.
Al-Anon Family Groups offer support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers, whether they're still drinking or not.
Addaction is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals and families with the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.
Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and database of local support groups.
Haastrup MB, Pottegård A, Damkier P. (2014) Alcohol and breastfeeding. Basic & Clinical Pharmacology & Toxicology. 114(2):168-173. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bcpt.12149 [Accessed 1st March 2019]
Koletzko B, Lehner F. (2000) Beer and breastfeeding. Adv Exp Med Biol. 478:23-28. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11065057 [Accessed 1st March 2019]
Lactmed. (2019) Alcohol. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK501469/ [Accessed 1st March 2019]
Mennella JA, Beauchamp GK. (1991) The transfer of alcohol to human milk: effects on flavor and the infant's behavior. New England Journal of Medicine. 325:981-985. Available at: https://www.nejm.org/doi/10.1056/NEJM199110033251401?url_ver=Z39.88-200… 1st June 2018]
Mennella JA, Gerrish CJ. (1998) Effects of exposure to alcohol in mother’s milk on infant sleep. Pediatrics. 101:e2-e2. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9565435 [Accessed 1st June 2018]
Mennella JA. (1998) Short-term effects of maternal alcohol consumption on lactational performance. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 22(7):1389-1392. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9802517 [Accessed 1st June 2018]
Mennella JA. (2018) Alcohol’s effect on lactation. Available at: https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-3/230-234.htm [Accessed 1st June 2018]
NHS. (2018a) Breastfeeding and drinking alcohol. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breastfeeding-alcohol/ [Accessed 1st June 2018]
NHS. (2018b) Alcohol units. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/calculating-alcohol-units/ [Accessed 1st June 2018]
NHS. (2018c) Tips on cutting down. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/tips-on-cutting-down-alcohol/ [Accessed 1st March 2018]
RCOG. (2018) Alcohol and pregnancy. Available at: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/patient-informa… [Accessed 1st June 2018]