How long does alcohol remain in breastmilk?

If a nursing mother has a drink or two, will the alcohol leave the body after a period of time, or will it remain in the breastmilk until the mother nurses or expresses her milk?

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Kathy Kuhn

Kathy Kuhn is a registered nurse who has been working with breastfeeding families since 1981. She has been an International Board Certified... Read more

Alcohol does pass freely into breastmilk, though in small amounts and in short duration. Alcohol is considered compatible with breastfeeding by the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs and Chemicals and Human Milk.

Alcohol will leave the body as it is metabolized. Because there is little storage space in the breast, most of the breastmilk is made from the blood as it is called for by the baby. Therefore the level of alcohol in the breastmilk is more closely related to the level of alcohol in the blood at the time the breastfeeding is occurring, rather than the level of alcohol the mother consumed overall.

Since milk production slows during the time between feedings, alcohol will not be stored in the breastmilk and passed to the baby at a later feeding if that feeding occurs when the blood alcohol level is down.

An occasional drink -- one glass of wine, one beer or one mixed drink -- would not necessitate interrupting breastfeeding. However, daily drinking would not be recommended because it can inhibit milk let down and cause slow weight gain in the infant. Studies have shown that babies of mothers who drank beer breastfed more frequently but consumed less breastmilk than babies whose mothers did not drink alcohol. (Mennella and Beauchamp 1993) There is no truth to the old wive's tale that drinking wine or beer will increase milk supply and enhance milk let down.

It would also be inadvisable to drink to the point of intoxication. Mothers who become intoxicated should not breastfeed until they are completely sober. When the mother becomes sober, most of the alcohol has left the blood and it should be safe to resume breastfeeding. Drinking to the point of intoxication, or binge drinking, has not been adequately addressed in studies of breastfeeding mothers and babies so all of the risks are not clearly understood.

Dr. Cheston Berlin, who was a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee for Drugs and Chemicals in human milk, recommends no more that one or two drinks per week for the breastfeeding mother. He also advises "delaying breastfeeding for about six to eight hours after a night out with a few drinks." (1992)

According to Thomas Hale, "alcohol is not considered harmful to the infant if the amount and duration are limited." The alcohol you drink will peak in your blood in about 30 to 90 minutes. It will peak in the shorter time if you are drinking on an empty stomach and it will take up to 90 minutes if you are drinking while also eating. Dr. Hale suggests waiting for two to three hours after drinking before resuming breastfeeding.

Schulte recommends waiting at least two hours for every drink consumed. (Riordan, & Auerbach 1999)

You can see that there has been much conflicting information about this issue, but it is always better for mother and baby to do without the alcohol.

References

Berlin, Cheston, , "Medications and Breastfeeding" La Leche League of Eastern PA Conference, October, 1992.

Hale, T, Medications and Mother's Milk 1999, Pharmasoft Medical Publishing, p 250, 1999

Mennella, J. & Beauchamp, G. "Effect of beer on breastfed infants" JAMA 1993, 269 (13) 1637.

Riordan, J. and Auerbach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, Jones and Barlett, Boston, 1999. 311.

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