Drinking and Breastfeeding: How Much Is Safe?

If you’re a new mom, a girls’ night out or a romantic dinner with your husband can be the perfect way to decompress, yet if you’re breastfeeding, is having a drink – or two – safe?

Paula Fitt, an internationally board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal nurse educator at Newton Medical Center in New Jersey, said that although there’s not enough research about drinking while breastfeeding, small amounts of alcohol have not been shown to have any serious effects.

Although less than two percent of alcohol is ultimately transferred into breast milk, the amount of alcohol in your system actually depends on your body’s plasma level. Unlike other medications and drugs, alcohol freely passes from a woman’s plasma into the milk compartment, or the area of the breast that produces milk. “If mom has a high alcohol plasma level, at some point, the level of alcohol in her breast milk is going to be high,” Fitt said.

And rather than collecting in the milk compartment, as alcohol leaves the bloodstream, it also clears out from the breast milk. “It will move into the milk as your plasma level rises but if it drops, it will pull it back out,” Fitt said.

So how do you know if your plasma level is high? It’s simple: the higher your plasma level is, the more effects you’ll feel. So if you’re feeling intoxicated, it’s a good indication that your level is high.

A Personal Decision

Before pouring that glass, it’s important to first decide what is acceptable for you and your family. For example, you might feel comfortable having a glass of wine with dinner and then breastfeeding a few hours later when the buzz has subsided. On the other hand, if you’re not comfortable with any amount of alcohol in your body, you can use Milkscreen test strips, which will tell you if there’s alcohol in your milk, but not how much. According to La Leche League, it takes up to 13 hours for a 120-pound woman to completely clear out one highly alcoholic drink from her system. “If you’re feeling completely sober, it can be a long time that you will still have a positive milk screen,” Fitt cautions.

Enjoy a Glass

After having one drink, it will take 30-60 minutes for alcohol levels in breast milk to peak, and about two to three hours for the body to completely metabolize it. A 2007 study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that although lactating moms who had a drink had lower alcohol levels, the effects of alcohol were the same as non-lactating women.

Yet breastfeeding moms should consider other factors too. Because newborns have immature livers, they will metabolize any amount of alcohol differently than an older baby whose liver is more mature. Also, how much you weigh, if you’ve eaten and how much alcohol you drink are important because the more you drink, the longer it takes to leave your body.  “A good rule of thumb is if you’re sober enough to drive, you’re sober enough to breastfeed,” said Dr. Susan Rothenberg, the associate director of obstetrics at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. So if you have one drink, you may want to breastfeed first, then wait two to three hours before breastfeeding again. Or you can pump beforehand or feed your baby formula instead.

And what about the practice of pumping and dumping? “Pumping and dumping milk that’s been exposed to alcohol won’t necessarily clear the alcohol out of your system faster,” according to Fitt who said the only reason to pump and then discard your milk is if you’re engorged because you’ve delayed breastfeeding and run the risk of plugged ducts or a slowdown in milk production.

Julie Revelant is a freelance writer specializing in parenting, health, and women's issues and a mom. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com