Here's What Actually Happens If You Drink Booze And Breastfeed

Comedian Katherine Ryan recently divided opinion after drinking while breastfeeding her baby. Here's why one glass won't hurt.
Antonio Hugo Photo via Getty Images

You’re on holiday with your baby and a cold glass of rosé is calling your name.

Do you a) opt for a lemonade to save the glares from complete strangers as they pass judgement or b) order yourself a glass of icy goodness (because god knows motherhood has been hard enough without having to give this up, too).

Lots of breastfeeding parents will have been faced with a dilemma over whether to drink booze and then nurse at some point or other.

There’s lots of conflicting advice out there – and when words like ‘harmful’ and ‘your baby’ are bandied around in the same sentence, it can understandably cause a lot of worry and guilt.

But the reality is a lot more nuanced than simply saying: drinking alcohol and then breastfeeding is bad for your baby. Like everything on this planet, it’s about moderation.

Comedian Katherine Ryan, 39, recently won the applause of lots – but not all – mums after she posted a photo of herself enjoying a glass of what appeared to be white wine while nursing her baby.

“Thank you for showing it’s fine to drink wine while breastfeeding,” one person commented in response to the photo.

Another added: “Yes! I remember after having my daughter, really struggling with bf [breastfeeding] and the head of breastfeeding support told me ‘you’ll be ok, have some wine and chill out at the end of the day if you can’. That’s a green light for me.”

But not everyone was convinced. “Why would anyone risk their tiny baby’s liver having to process alcohol,” another user commented. “Alcohol in a baby is not “fine” or smart!! Express!!”

So is it OK to drink and breastfeed or not?

Health and breastfeeding specialists in the UK – we’re talking the NHS, La Leche League – agree that when a breastfeeding parent drinks occasionally and limits their consumption, the amount of alcohol their baby receives isn’t harmful. And research backs this up.

“The absolute amount of alcohol transferred into milk is generally low, and while we constantly review research, existing studies indicate that occasional moderate drinking is not considered harmful for nursing babies,” reads guidance from the La Leche League website.

We do know that alcohol can pass into breastmilk (fairly easily) and then into a baby who is nursing, however one glass of wine is very unlikely to cause any issues.

Alcohol in the mum’s blood would need to reach 300mg/100ml before the baby is mildly sedated, according to NCT. To put that into comparison, 80mg/100ml would fail drink/drive limits in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

If you are worried, the NHS recommends waiting at least two hours after having a drink before letting your baby nurse as the alcohol should no longer be in your system by then. Alcohol levels are usually highest in breast milk 30-60 minutes after being consumed.

Katherine Fisher, who has been working as a lactation consultant for 35 years, tells HuffPost UK: “It is entirely OK for you to drink alcohol when you’re breastfeeding. But if you’re an alcohol abuser, you do put your baby at risk.”

She adds that this would mean “you’re drinking alcohol all day, every day”.

In the UK it’s recognised that regularly drinking above the recommended limits – that’s 14 units per week, FYI – could be harmful for you and your baby. So consuming more than two drinks every day is not recommended.

Aside from the obvious health impacts for yourself, drinking above moderate levels has been linked to sleep and developmental problems in babies. It can also reduce your milk supply meaning your baby is getting less food, and can therefore impact growth.

There’s also the worry that you won’t be able to look after your child properly if inebriated. Studies have linked alcohol use to an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

So what can you do if you’re going ‘out out’?

If you’re going on a night out, it might be helpful to express some milk ahead of time so your little one has plenty of sustenance to get on with and won’t need an emergency top up in the middle of the night.

Sometimes you go out for ‘one’ drink, only for one bevvy to turn into three or four. If that’s the case, you might want to avoid breastfeeding for two to three hours for every drink you’ve had. The NHS recommends doing this to allow time for the alcohol to leave your breast milk.

But even if you did have to do an emergency 3am feed, it’s worth noting that one study suggested even in a theoretical case of binge drinking, babies would not be subjected to “clinically relevant” amounts of alcohol.

Some people believe you can ‘pump and dump’ – where you express after drinking to get the alcohol-tainted milk out of your system – however this is a myth.

As long as you have alcohol in your system, any newly produced milk will also contain alcohol. The levels in milk will fall as the level of alcohol in your body drops.

“With social drinking or going to a party, you don’t need to pump and dump or any of those things,” says Fisher.

You might however find it helpful to pump if you’ve not nursed for a while and your boobs are over-full – because engorgement is never fun.