The Grapevine

Is It Safe For Breastfeeding Mothers To Drink Alcohol?

Is it safe for a breastfeeding mother to enjoy a glass of wine now and then? A new study suggested that alcohol exposure via breast milk could affect cognitive performance in children, although the association appeared to be temporary.

The new study titled "Drinking or Smoking While Breastfeeding and Later Cognition in Children" was published in the journal Pediatrics on July 30.

The research team examined data sourced from a longitudinal study of Australian children. The sample size included more than 5100 infants who were recruited in 2004 and assessed every two years until the age of 11.

"Two years is a good time frame to where kids have developed enough, and it can be measured," said Louisa Gibson, co-author of the study. 

While the mothers provided information regarding their smoking and drinking habits during pregnancy and breastfeeding, the children took follow-up tests to measure their performance in cognitive domains like vocabulary, non-verbal reasoning, and early literacy.

The findings revealed a link between alcohol exposure via breast milk and cognitive deficits in children at the age of 6 and 7. But the effects seemed to weaken over time, having disappeared by the time the child reached the age of 10 or 11.

The cognitive test was also given to the children who were not breastfed. But in their case, the amount of alcohol consumed by the non-breastfeeding mother showed no correlation to how the child fared in the tests.

"What that means is that the dependent responses we saw (with mothers who did breastfeed) we didn’t see that in babies who were never breastfed," Gibson stated.

Cigarette smoking during breastfeeding did not appear to have any impact on cognitive outcomes. Of course, the habit is still discouraged given the other damaging health effects it can have.

Health experts suggested that excessive alcohol intake could also reduce the production of milk and affect sleep patterns of the infant. But mothers may not have to completely abstain either since moderate alcohol consumption — up to one standard drink per day — is generally not known to be harmful. 

However, if the mother "feels any of the effects of the alcohol in her system, then she should not breastfeed," said Dr. Elissa Rubin, medical director of Happy and Healthy Pediatrics in Mineola, New York. "She should pump that milk and discard it because it's not safe for the baby."

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, if a breastfeeding mother chooses to drink, it is best to wait for at least 2 hours before breastfeeding the baby. This would grant the body enough time to get rid of the alcohol and significantly reduce any potential exposure. 

But the exact timings of drinking and breastfeeding among participants could not be accounted for, making this one of the limitations of the study. It was also observational in nature, which meant that causality could not be established.