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How Much Alcohol Is Safe While Breastfeeding?

Updated on October 9, 2012

How Alcohol Enters Milk

When researching on alcohol and breastfeeding it is difficult to find a straightforward answer to the question is it safe. This article aims to do just that. And yes you'll be please to know drinking some alcohol whilst breastfeeding is safe as long as you follow certain rules. I would hate to think that anyone would choose not to breastfeed based on the thought that they couldn't go without a drink for 6 months or a year etc. You can breastfeed and drink alcohol so long as you're not planning on binge drinking that is.

The first step to understanding breastfeeding and alcohol consumption is to understand how alcohol enters your milk, and of course how it leaves it. The same levels of alcohol will be present in your milk as are present in your blood. So then based on drinking one unit the alcohol enters your milk approximately 30 minutes after drinking it. The alcohol will leave your blood, and therefore your milk, approximately 2 hours after drinking it. Again this is based on just drinking one unit of alcohol. For every additional unit you drink you are looking at a further two hours for it to leave your milk. So if you have drunk three units of alcohol it will be present in your milk for six hours.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Baby

Now it is very important to note that when I say you can breastfeed and drink alcohol that is not the same as saying it is OK to feed your baby when you have alcohol present in your milk. To that end it is actually better to feed your baby while drinking your drink than it would be to feed your baby 1 hour and 30 minutes after drinking.

It is not a good idea to let your baby drink milk that has alcohol present in it. A baby's liver is not fully developed and cannot breakdown alcohol as well as an adult's liver can.For this reason many people suggest waiting until your baby is three months old before you reintroduce alcohol. I think this is a good idea since before then you might not be able to second guess when your baby is going to need feeding.

Studies have shown that babies who ingest alcohol through the breastmilk can have disturbed sleeping patterns and problems gaining weight. One study has shown that breastfed babies whose mother drank at least one unit of alcohol every night had delayed gross motor skills.

How Much Can I Drink?

Remember the experts recommend that women who are not breastfeeding only drink 21 units of alcohol a week maximum. That works out at 3 units per night and they suggest that ideally you should have 3 alcohol free nights a week.

For breastfeeding mothers most experts recommend drinking no more than 1 to 2 units a few times a week. However, how much you can safely drink depends on a few factors:

  1. When you will have to feed your baby
  2. Whether you have expressed some milk to feed them with
  3. Whether your baby is in a set feeding routine

If you have to feed your baby within two hours it is only safe to drink 1 unit of alcohol.

If your baby is asleep for the night and will sleep for 12 hours then in theory you can drink 6 units of alcohol- although I would not recommend drinking more than 3 units- hangovers and babies do not mix!

If you are going out and have left your baby with relatives and have expressed milk for him to drink then again you can drink 1 drink per every two hours you will be away from him, providing you have your last drink at least 2 hours before you will be feeding him.

If your baby is in a set feeding routine then you can plan exactly when and how much you can drink. If your baby is not yet feeding to a routine then you will probably have to express some milk to feed her for when you want to drink.

What is 1 Unit of Alcohol?:

  • One small glass of 12% wine (125ml)
  • 1/2 pint of normal strength (3-4%) beer, larger or cider
  • 35ml of 40% spirits

Should I Pump and Dump?

The simple answer here is no. Pumping and dumping is a total waste of time. You cannot remove alcohol from your milk any faster than it will leave your bloodstream. Likewise you do not have to get rid of milk that has been 'infected' with alcohol as the alcohol doesn't stay in your breastmilk. As soon as the alcohol has left your blood it will have also left your milk.

That does not mean to say you should not Pump to Feed. If you are planning to drink and you know you will still have alcohol in your milk when you are due to feed then you can express that feed in advance.

Finally if you are going to be away from your baby- maybe you are on a night out- then it is a good idea to pump when you would have otherwise been feeding her. This is to maintain milk supply. Also if you have missed a feed your breasts will feel full and you might need to express a bit of milk just to make your breasts more comfortable.

If you are on a night out and your baby sleeps through the night without any feeds then you will not need to express as you wouldn't have been feeding him anyway during these hours.


Why do Some Experts Advocate Total Abstinence?

Some experts suggest that women who are breastfeeding their babies should simply abstain from alcohol altogether. But this doesn't make sense because I've just told you it's safe right? Well their reasons for advocating abstinence are not purely down to whether it is possible to drink alcohol and breastfeed safely. So why do they suggest total abstinence?

  • There is a cruel irony here- if you are not that big a drinker and you're not that bothered about alcohol then you will be OK to drink the recommended limit of 1-2 units a few times a week. If you are the type who's desperate to know you can still drink then you are more likely to not be satisfied with your one to two units a few times a week. Or so say the experts... they reason that soon you will feel tempted to drink more and so it is safer for you to avoid alcohol altogether while you are breastfeeding;
  • A lot of women who breastfeed co-sleep or at least bring their baby into bed with them for the night feeds. Because it is explicitly forbidden for you to co-sleep when intoxicated experts recommend you abstain from alcohol if you are still feeding through the night or you co-sleep;
  • If you have drunk a lot the night before you will have to wake up and look after your baby with a hangover- this means you might not be able to give your baby the proper care and attention he needs;
  • If you are drunk and there is an emergency in the middle of the night you will not be able to care for your child properly. Always ensure there is at least one sober adult in the house at all times.

So... How Much Alcohol is Safe While Breastfeeding?

  • If your baby is under three months - none.
  • If your baby is not yet in a feeding routine- none or 1 unit if you have some expressed milk on standby to feed him while the alcohol is still in your milk.
  • If your baby is in a feeding routine and does not need feeding for 2 hours- 1 unit if you drink it at least 2 hours before his feed is due.
  • If your baby is in a feeding routine and does not need feeding for 4 hours- 2 units if you have your second unit at least 2 hours before her feed is due.
  • If your baby has gone to bed and sleeps 12 hours between feeds- in theory 6 units but I would not recommend drinking more than 3 in one night.

Remember for a special occasion when you know you will not be feeding your baby for 12 hours- either because he is sleeping or you have expressed feeds- then drinking 3-6 units is OK. However, if we are talking on a regular weekly basis you should be sticking to 1-2 units only a few nights a week.


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    • profile image

      Wunmi 17 months ago

      zero level of alcohol should be found in a nursing mother because it might affect the babies health ;Moreover no way no how a little amount of alcohol will be found in the babies.

    • Meg Moon profile image

      Meg Moon 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you found the hub useful :)

    • Funom Makama 3 profile image

      Funom Theophilus Makama 5 years ago from Europe

      This is a magnificient and extra-ordinary Hub. I never for once thought of it and the last time this topic came to mind was when I was studying Pediatrics and total abstinence was encouraged. You have taken your time to break down the appropriate alcohol intake while breasfeeding and this just leaves this hub totally informing and educating. Thumbs up to you and I am really looking forward to read some more hubs from you. Great work friend and thanks for the share,.