There are certain experiences that earn you an invisible parenting badge. Changing your baby’s diaper in a dank, dive-bar basement—no fold-out table, no hand soap, barely any light—qualifies.
My second was eight months old and I’d hit my stride. It was a weekday, in the middle of a heat wave. I had a seat on a patio in the shade with a friend, ice cold pints and a sleeping baby snug and sweaty in my carrier—a mat-leave triumph moment. When he woke happy but wet, we trotted downstairs for a quick change.
As he lay on the filthy concrete floor, with my postage stamp-sized change mat offering hilariously little buffer, he kicked his legs happily and giggled, and I realized: Mommy is buzzed. That one beer, the heat and the good vibes had me giddy. I was still sober enough to do a very efficient job, and also to realize that without that drink, I might never have laid him down here.
It’s funny: I was more concerned about that contaminated floor than my lager-laced breastmilk. And, for once, my worry was in the right place—because doctors and experts agree that an occasional drink shouldn’t send breastfeeding moms into a shame spiral.
I’m not the chill-est mom by any stretch. I stressed when my first didn’t walk until 19 months, when she took up thumb-sucking after we “lost” her soother, that she was wholly uninterested in solid food—basically, I stressed over everything. So striking wine with dinner off my worry list felt as comforting as… a glass of wine with dinner.
“From the moment you get pregnant until your kids grow up, you live with guilt. Mothers have a tendency to blame themselves for many things that happen to their kids, whether it’s warranted or not,” says Catherine Pound, a paediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. “Anything we can do to understand the stress that mothers feel can help. I would be very careful about chastising any woman for having an occasional drink. She shouldn’t feel guilty. She should be able to enjoy it.”
Both the Canadian Paediatric Society and the World Health Organization recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and up to two years. Most experts don’t want to see women abandon breastfeeding because they also want the occasional beer. It’s not an either-or proposition. “We have to cut mothers a bit of slack,” Pound says. “I’d rather see them have successful breastfeeding relationships, even if it means an occasional drink, especially when babies are older than three months. At the end of the day, the benefits of breastfeeding are huge.” Pound’s conviction on this is shared by La Leche League and breastfeeding expert Jack Newman, who’ve been saying the same thing for years.
Nine months of not drinking can certainly blur into postpartum—we often tend to conflate drinking during pregnancy (which is not advised because it can seriously and adversely affect the developing fetus) and drinking during breastfeeding. But they’re not the same at all, says George Carson, an obstetrician in Regina and outgoing president of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “The dynamics of alcohol passing through the placenta to the fetus are very, very different.”
When a nursing mother has a drink, the alcohol level in her milk will be the same as in her blood—and that becomes even more diluted when the baby metabolizes it. “We’re talking super small amounts if the amount consumed by the mother is small,” Pound says.
How small is that? A review of 41 studies in the journal Basic + Clinical Pharmacology + Toxicology states that “even in a theoretical case of binge drinking, the children would not be subjected to clinically relevant amounts of alcohol [in].”
This isn’t permission to get plastered. “If you want one drink four or five times a week, you can do that,” Carson tells me. “But it doesn’t mean you can save them all up and have them at once.” Ultimately, he’s not concerned about alcohol in breastmilk, he says, but with a mom’s ability to care for her baby when she’s had too many drinks. The risk of falling, dropping or forgetting your baby increases, while reaction time slows way down. Bed-sharing is not recommended after drinking due to links with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. “Just like you don’t want to drive impaired, you don’t want to be impaired and doing childcare,” says Carson.
In the movies, a cup of black coffee is an instant sober-up cure. Similarly, some believe “pumping and dumping”—pumping your milk and discarding it—will purge the alcohol from your system. But neither one of these strategies actually works—and the latter isn’t necessary.
“There’s no reason to ever pump and dump,” Carson says. “It won’t decrease the amount of alcohol in your breastmilk. The only way you can get rid of alcohol in your system is with time.” And the time it takes depends on how much alcohol you’ve consumed. Blood and breastmilk alcohol levels peak 30 to 60 minutes after your first drink, Pound says.
If you’re cautious and you have the flexibility, feed your baby before your glass of rosé, then wait about an hour before nursing again. If you like a good chart, motherisk.org has done the specific calculations based on body weight and amount of alcohol consumed—though Pound says this is a little too complicated. “I’ve yet to see a nursing mom pull out a chart at a party,” she says.
Whether it’s a patio pint or a single margarita with your burrito, nursing moms should feel free to raise a glass. “New moms who are breastfeeding should feel happy and confident in what they’re doing,” Carson says. “It’s the right thing to do, and they should get on and enjoy their lives while they’re doing it.”