Alcohol, Caffeine, and New Moms – What You Need to Know

Perhaps you just made it through nine months alcohol free and you’re looking forward to your first post baby glass of wine.  Or maybe you just found out you’re pregnant and want to know if you should give up coffee.  You don’t have to be addicted to caffeine or alcohol to appreciate a nice drink sometimes.  These two libations are the foundations of many of our social experiences.  They represent rituals we go through that bring peace to our days.  So when you find out you’re pregnant, it may feel like going through a desert.  How long do you have to be “clean”?  Can you resume your morning joe when the baby comes?  When do you get to go out and have a glass of wine with your girlfriends?

Caffeine

Whether it’s in the form of coffee, tea, pop, or even dark chocolate, caffeine is the mild stimulant that runs our society.  It finds its way into our favorite treats, is part of many of our morning (and afternoon) rituals, and is found at essentially all social gatherings.  Because of the popularity of Starbucks, “meeting for coffee”, and the availability of coffee at offices around the country, I’m going to use the terms coffee and caffeine interchangeably.  When you think about it, if you’re giving up caffeine because you’re pregnant or nursing, chances are it’s in the form of coffee.

I slowly got addicted to coffee over the years.  It started out as trying to be like the adults at church functions.  Then in college I discovered the coffee shop as a local “hang out” and enjoyed a fancy beverage while doing homework, reading, or writing.  But what pushed me over the edge was work: 10 years in bitter cold offices combined with hours upon hours of having nothing to do but babysit a desk combined to create a coffee addicted monster.  So when I became pregnant and had to quit coffee cold turkey, it was a bit of a struggle.  In fact, I’ll never know how much of my exhaustion in those days was due to the lack of caffeine or normal first trimester tiredness.

Pregnancy

How Much Can You Have?

Studies have been inconclusive, and so the official recommendation is to limit your intake to 200 mg of caffeine daily while pregnant.  This is about the equivalent of 12 oz. of coffee (or two 6 oz. cups).  Some studies have linked daily caffeine intake over 200 mg to increased risk of miscarriage.  (I, for one, was not willing to take that risk).  Animal studies have linked caffeine consumption to birth defects.  No test on human subjects has conclusively proven any of these risks.

Be aware that caffeine can increase your heart rate, which could increase your blood pressure.  As many women struggle with high blood pressure during pregnancy, less is more when it comes to caffeine!  In addition, the caffeine will transfer into your baby’s bloodstream.  Besides any detrimental health affects this may have on your baby, it may be training your baby’s sleep patterns to change.  Think about when you are having caffeine and if you want a newborn baby up and at ’em at those times of day.

A shot glass full of Dr. Pepper – some celebratory caffeine after Bugaboo was born.

How Much Are You Consuming?

Here’s how much caffeine is in some popular caffeinated drinks.  Remember, 200 mg per day is the recommended maximum:

  • Cup of coffee (6 oz) – 95 mg
  • Latte (8 oz) – 63 mg
  • Mountain Dew (12 oz) – 55 mg
  • Espresso (1 oz) – 47 mg
  • Black tea (6 oz) – 45 mg
  • Green tea (6 oz) – 40 mg
  • Dr. Pepper (12 oz) – 37 mg
  • Coca Cola (12 oz) – 35 mg
  • Hershey Dark Chocolate bar – 31 mg
  • Cup of decaf coffee (8 oz) – 2 mg

Photo courtesy of Modern Hello Photography in Wichita, KS

Breastfeeding

The rules for caffeine in breastfeeding are fairly similar to the pregnancy rules.  However, once your baby’s born, it’s a lot easier to disconnect your actions from the impact they have on the baby.  In other words, your caffeine isn’t being pumped directly to the baby through the umbilical cord.  It’s settling into your milk supply.  So it’s easier to want to go back to having a regular cup of coffee or increasing your intake from one cup a day to two.  (Not to mention, you’re exhausted).  Fortunately, nursing mothers are recommended to limit their caffeine intake to 500 mg per day, or about 5 cups of coffee.

Timing

One thing to remember about drinking caffeine while nursing is timing.  The caffeine will go into your breastmilk at the same time you drink it!  And it will stay in your breastmilk for the same amount of time that you experience its effects.  Therefore, the best time to drink a caffeinated beverage is right after you nurse.  (Watch out, though – as Bugaboo grew older, I took this to heart and would have a coffee as soon as she had nursed and gone down for her nap.  Pretty soon I had trained myself that I needed coffee while she was napping.)  You may try nursing or pumping again about 2 hours after having consumed caffeine.

Baby’s Reaction

Whether you are actually measuring the amount of caffeine you intake or not, you may get a pretty clear signal from your baby if you are drinking too much.  If your baby seems agitated or cannot fall asleep, perhaps she has some caffeine in her system.  The less caffeine you had during your pregnancy, the more sensitive your baby might be to caffeine when breastfeeding.  Bugaboo was fussing and having a hard time going down for a nap shortly after I had a Pepsi.  We assumed the caffeine was keeping her up, and so I reverted back to my “no caffeine ever” rules.  If your baby seems irritable and fussy, try cutting out caffeine for a week or two to see if there is any improvement.

As your baby ages, her reaction to caffeine may decrease.  You can slowly re-introduce caffeine into your diet after your baby is about 6 months old.  She will be taking in more solids and less breastmilk as she ages, and that will also decrease the impact of caffeine.

What Are Alternatives?

Obviously, you can still have most of your favorite drinks decaf, or even mixed 50/50.  I was even able to get Caffeine Free Dr. Pepper by having my brother-in-law lug it up here from Texas.  But some espresso drinks (or my beloved Chocolate Chip Frappe) don’t come with a decaf option.  Or perhaps the only reason you drink coffee is because you desperately need the caffeine.  In other words, how do you get the energy boost when you can’t imbibe caffeine?

  • Take a walk in fresh air
  • Have a little sugar
  • Do some jumping jacks or squats
  • Have a cold glass of water
  • Take a shower
  • Switch to decaf – your brain may appreciate the act of drinking that cup of coffee, even if there’s no caffeine in it
  • Switch to low-caffeine alternates such as tea

Alcohol

I like to think of myself as a moderate drinker, although it seems the definition of that word “moderate” is harder and harder to pin down.  At social events I will have an alcoholic beverage (if it’s free), and maybe two if my husband is driving.  This happens about once or twice a year.  But I love the idea of alcohol.  I love to picture myself sitting on a patio with my girlfriends, sipping on cocktails, or popping open a bottle of champagne to celebrate a momentous occasion.  Alcohol feels so sophisticated.  But in reality, I don’t care for the way I feel after drinking – even a little.  Even with Bugaboo weaned, I foresee myself drinking a lot less alcohol in the near future.  Still, in 21 months of pregnancy and breastfeeding, I encountered several offers to have a little drink  So what do you do when you’re offered a drink?

Pregnancy

Let’s cut to the chase.  The official advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is to avoid alcohol entirely throughout pregnancy.  However, you probably know pregnant women who have had alcoholic beverages.  The truth is, there probably is some support for the notion that alcohol in moderation during pregnancy will not hurt your baby.  For thousands of years, expectant mothers would drink alcohol because it was safer than water.  But when it comes to the development of your baby and the risks involved (speech and learning delays, smaller head, and birth defects in facial features just to name a few) the question is – is it really worth the risk?

First of all, not all women define moderation in alcohol the same way!  If you were a hard core partyer before getting pregnant, then you may think two glasses of wine three times a week sounds pretty moderate.  (Doesn’t sound moderate to me at all!)  Science has not been able to measure just where the line is drawn between moderate alcohol consumption and too much.  Another thing to consider is the slippery slope.  Even if you set boundaries for yourself – one alcoholic drink on New Year’s Eve, or one beer per month – you are removing a mental barrier between you and alcohol.  It will be harder to say “no” to extra offers for drinking.  Finally, other pregnant women are watching you.  If the one beer you drink your entire pregnancy is done in front of a young, susceptible mom, you may be sending the wrong message that alcohol is “ok.”

Therefore, I strongly advise just giving up all alcohol during pregnancy.  Being dry for nine months is much better than dealing with the results of fetal alcohol syndrome for the rest of your life.

Breastfeeding

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that breastfeeding mothers avoid alcohol completely.  Like caffeine, alcohol can be found in breast milk fairly quickly after it is imbibed.  In general, its levels are highest 30-60 minutes after consumption.  The CDC recommends breastfeeding mothers limit themselves to one alcoholic beverage per day, and that they wait 2 hours to breastfeed their infant after consuming alcohol.  In addition to potentially transferring alcohol to your infant through your breastmilk, high alcohol consumption may interfere with your supply!

(With that said, there is some non-scientific indication that dark beer may help with milk supply!  I have heard amazing anecdotes from breastfeeding mothers who have increased supply with beer.  However, if you choose to try beer to increase your milk supply, continue to limit yourself to one drink per day and feed your infant at least two hours after drinking).

Pump and Mix

You may have heard of the phrase, “Pump and dump.”  This means that you have consumed something that you don’t want in your breast milk, so you pump your supply out and then throw the milk away.  (Note – don’t throw it away!  You can still add it to your baby’s bath).

I prefer to “pump and mix.”  This was a strategy I learned because I had lipase, a fat substance that makes stored breast milk taste bad.  I was mixing in freshly pumped milk with my freezer stash and realized that I was diluting whatever questionable substances were in the milk.  If you had a little alcohol and are worried about it going through your milk supply to your baby, pump the milk out.  Instead of dumping it or using it for another purpose, simply mix a little in at a time with whatever other milk you are giving your baby.  Depending on how much alcohol you had, use a 25/75 ratio of “contaminated” milk, or work your way up to 50/50 if you didn’t imbibe that much or pumped well after consuming the drink.

Childcare Considerations

Even if your baby is weaned, before you hit the bottle again, consider your childcare arrangements.  You don’t want to be in a position where your reflexes and judgment are impaired while you are caring for your baby.  Avoid consuming alcohol unless another adult is around who can be your baby’s designated caretaker.  Better yet, wait until your child is in bed and continue to drink in moderation.  You don’t want your child’s first memories to be of an intoxicated mother.  Never ever drink and drive – not only is this dangerous to others, you have a baby that is waiting for you at home!

What Are Alternatives?

Alternatives to alcohol depend upon your reasons for consuming it.  If you are at a party where alcohol is being served, then the obvious alternative is a non-alcoholic beverage.  On the other hand, if you are planning an outing with your girlfriends, you can try to center the function on something other than alcohol.  Consider a painting class, visit to a local park or amusement park, or progressive dinner.  Finally, if you are used to having a glass of wine or can of beer in the evening to de-stress, consider other alternatives that may help alleviate the stress: read a book, go for a walk, write in a journal, take a warm bath, call a friend, or cook.

Be careful about trading one habit for another!  Try not to replace your daily alcoholic beverage with a caffeinated drink.  Don’t replace alcohol (or caffeine) with pop or fresh baked cookies – believe me, you will regret it!  These can still be the good old days, and you can use your brief time-out from caffeine and alcohol to develop some healthy de-stressing habits!

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