Roxanne Wright of Toronto and Megg Markettos of Ancaster, Ont., may not know one another, but they’ve both been desperate enough to give up something they — and many other mothers of newborns — love most: coffee. “I’m a three-cup-a-day girl,” says Markettos, who kept up her coffee habit while nursing her daughter Stella. “But when Stella was four weeks old, she became a screaming monster. She didn’t sleep well, she cried a lot and she would only catnap.” Since Markettos was breastfeeding, several people suggested she eliminate caffeine. Markettos, desperate for a solution, gave up her java jolt for four long weeks, but it didn’t help. “Stella was still a monster, so I wasn’t sleeping at night, and I had nothing to help me deal during the day,” she says. Markettos, who was also caring for her 22-month-old along with Stella, eventually went back to her three-cups-a-day dosage.
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Wright’s son, Theo, was about the same age when she noticed something was off. “He would have a shallow sleep and would cry a lot,” she explains. Wright was also nursing and thought maybe caffeine was the culprit, so she went without it for about a week. “It was supposed to help him sleep better, but all it did was make me more tired and crabby,” she says.
Both these women’s experiences fit with the results of a new study published in the medical journal Pediatrics, which looked at caffeine and night waking in infants. The researchers measured the caffeine intake of the mothers of 885 babies, and found there was no correlation between infant sleep habits and mothers who consumed caffeine during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Does that mean nursing moms can consume as much coffee, chocolate, pop and tea as their hearts desire? Not quite, says Danielle Martin, a family physician at Women’s College Hospital and head of Family Practice Obstetrics at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. “There’s probably not a risk to the baby if women drink two or three cups of coffee,” she explains, “but there are many more reasons why a woman might want to moderate her caffeine intake.” Caffeine is a diuretic, Martin explains, which means it dehydrates you, and since breastfeeding saps a woman of fluids, it is very important to stay hydrated. Second, too much caffeine can make it hard for new parents to grab much-needed sleep when they get a chance. “Drinking four cups of coffee when you wake up in the morning may help you get through the first few hours of the day,” she says, “but it’s going to make it very difficult for you to take a nap at 1 p.m. when the baby goes down.” Instead, Martin recommends one to two cups a day.
Taya Griffin, a Toronto lactation counsellor, tells new moms that it’s important to trust their instincts. If you feel cutting caffeine out might make a difference in your baby’s behaviour, even though there’s no scientifically proven link, it’s always worth a try, she says. But she also counsels nursing women not to radically alter their diets. “Breastfeeding should fit in with your lifestyle,” she explains. “If mothers are more relaxed about nursing, they will be able to stick with breastfeeding longer.”
A version of this article appeared in our October 2012 issue with the headline "Full of beans," pp. 74.