Alcohol and Breastfeeding: Is It Safe To Drink When You Have an Infant?

Last Updated on May 12, 2021

It’s common knowledge that drinking alcohol while pregnant is not safe for the baby. But what about after the baby is born? Can you drink while breastfeeding? The information available on this topic is not as clear.

In this post, we’ll clarify some frequently asked questions about alcohol and breastfeeding to help you keep your baby safe and healthy.

Can Nursing Mothers Drink Alcohol?

mother with infant at her breast
Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1 (CDC), the safest option for breastfeeding mothers is not to consume alcohol. However, moderate drinking is generally not harmful to infants. For women, moderate drinking is defined as one standard drink per day.

The CDC explains that drinking above moderate levels can harm the baby, and it may impair the mother’s judgment and ability to care safely for the child.

How Much Alcohol Gets Into Breast Milk?

Many people believe that when it comes to alcohol and breast milk, the baby’s blood alcohol content will match mom’s. This is not true.

Alcohol content is diluted in your bloodstream when you drink, and the alcohol in breast milk is further diluted in the baby’s bloodstream. An infant takes in approximately five to six percent2 of the weight-adjusted maternal dose of alcohol through breast milk. In other words, they receive only a fraction of what you drink.

Blood alcohol levels in a nursing infant depend on several factors: how much alcohol the mother consumes, whether or not she drinks with food, how fast she drinks, the mother’s body weight, and the rate at which her body breaks down (metabolizes) alcohol. The infant’s ability to metabolize alcohol is also a factor: Newborns process alcohol at approximately half of the rate seen in adults, as their livers are still developing3.

How Long Should You Wait To Breastfeed After Drinking?

The CDC recommends waiting at least two hours after a single drink before nursing. Alcohol levels are highest in breast milk about 30-60 minutes after a drink, and alcohol can be detected in breast milk for about two to three hours.

If a mother consumes more than this, she should estimate an additional two hours or so per drink before the alcohol will leave her system. This means waiting around four to five hours after two drinks, six to eight hours after three drinks, and so on.

Therefore, if you plan to have more than one drink on a given occasion, it’s important to plan ahead. You will need to wait for the alcohol to leave your system naturally before breastfeeding. But what if your baby gets hungry? One option is to store breast milk ahead of time so your baby can eat safely while you wait.

Is It Necessary To “Pump and Dump”?

infant in their parent's hands
Photo by Aikomo Opeyemi on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the term “pumping and dumping,” and likely heard all kinds of pump and dump breastfeeding rules. The truth is that there is no real benefit to pumping and dumping when it comes to alcohol and breastfeeding. The only reason to pump and dump in this situation is to ease your own discomfort.

Pumping and dumping does not make the alcohol level in your breast milk drop faster. The level of alcohol in breast milk naturally drops as blood alcohol levels drop, and expressing milk doesn’t make this happen more quickly.

Additionally, alcohol works its way out of your breast milk over time if it remains in your body, at the same rate as it leaves your bloodstream. If you pump and dump, any alcohol contained in that milk will remain, rather than being eliminated by your system. This milk may not be safe for your infant to consume.

In other words, unless you’re uncomfortable, or need to stick to a set schedule, there’s little purpose in pumping and dumping after drinking.

How Does Drinking While Breastfeeding Affect My Baby?

So, what happens if a baby drinks breast milk with alcohol? Short-term effects may include irritability and longer awake times. In the long term, other signs of alcohol in a breastfed baby could include weakness, abnormal weight gain, and delayed motor development4. However, more research is needed on the long-term impact of alcohol and breast milk on babies.

Since alcohol alters the taste and smell of breast milk, babies may feed less or alter their feeding habits when milk contains alcohol. Nursing mothers who drink heavily sometimes experience inhibited let-down5, making it difficult to breastfeed enough. Sometimes babies sleep excessively or struggle to suck effectively as a result of alcohol, also leading to problems with adequate feeding and nutrition.

Are There Any Benefits To Drinking Alcohol While Breastfeeding?

You may have heard rumours that drinking alcohol increases your supply of breast milk, or even that it helps infants sleep. Neither is true.

In the past, alcoholic drinks contained more nutritious grains and herbs that may have served to boost milk supply. However, the opposite is often true today. And over time, alcohol can actually decrease milk supply and inhibit milk let-down.

Similarly, alcohol actually disturbs an infant’s sleep rather than enhancing it. Research6 shows that babies of light drinkers get less sleep than babies of non-drinkers. Alcohol can disrupt a baby’s active sleep and cause more frequent waking at night.

Alcohol and Breastfeeding: The Bottom Line

The absolute safest approach for nursing mothers is to avoid alcohol. Drinking moderately on occasion, however, will not harm your baby. Keep in mind that it takes about two hours per drink for alcohol to leave your system (and your breast milk). Tricks like pumping and dumping do not speed up this process.

If you plan to have more than one drink in a single sitting, one option is to express milk in advance so your baby can eat promptly and safely when hungry. And while having an extra drink or not waiting a full two hours on one or two occasions won’t hurt your baby, it can be harmful if it happens regularly.

Consistent heavy drinking can affect milk supply, make babies sleepy and irritable, and sometimes negatively impact growth and development. Heavy drinking also makes it more difficult for mothers to use sound judgment and respond quickly and effectively to their infant’s cues.

Support For Limiting Drinking

If you’re finding it difficult to manage your drinking while breastfeeding, Ria Health can help. Our telemedicine program is accessible through a smartphone app, so you can get the support you need without disrupting you and your baby’s schedule.

We offer virtual recovery coaching, support groups, tracking tools, and more to empower you to take control of your drinking habits. Whether you want to stop drinking or simply cut back, we’re here to help you make it happen!

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Ashley Cullins
Written By:
Freelance writer with contributions to numerous addiction blogs and a passion for relatable content.
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Content Writer/Editor
Writer specializing in targeted, informative content. Dedicated to making the abstract accessible.

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