Alcohol Doesn't Help Breastfeeding

Science Contradicts the Folklore, Say Researchers

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 06, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

April 6, 2005 -- Alcohol doesn't improve breastfeeding, a new study shows.

That flies in the face of folklore, says researcher Julie Mennella, PhD, of Philadelphia's Monell Chemical Senses Center. She and her colleagues tested the popular belief -- and alcohol flunked.

A drink might make moms briefly feel more relaxed, but it doesn't help breast milk production, says Mennella's team in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

In fact, alcohol could hinder milk production. "Recommending alcohol as an aid to lactation may be counterproductive," they write in the journal's April edition.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding alcohol while nursing, as the alcohol can pass through breast milk to the baby. "If you choose to drink alcohol, drink it just after you nurse rather than just before," says the AAP's web page on breastfeeding and diet.

Maternal Myth?

For centuries, traditional wisdom in many cultures has held that alcohol helps moms produce breast milk. But that belief lacks scientific evidence, according to the study.

Mennella's study amounted to a showdown for folklore. To see if alcohol lived up to its reputation, 17 healthy, breastfeeding moms drank orange juice with alcohol on one day and straight juice on another day. They didn't know which drink was which, since the drinks' smell and flavor were masked.

After each drink, the women's milk production (via a breast pump) was measured. The moms also gave blood samples every few minutes for an hour-and-a-half during the experiment, and their moods were noted.

The results showed that alcohol had no advantages for breast milk production.

Alcohol's Effects on Breastfeeding

Twelve of the 17 women produced less breast milk on the day they had the alcohol-spiked drink. On average, they produced 13% less breast milk than they did after drinking the alcohol-free juice.

Alcohol consumption affected two key hormones involved in milk production and breastfeeding. The women had lower levels of a hormone called oxytocin, a hormone believed to be responsible for milk released into the breast.

Alcohol also increased levels of two other hormones, cortisol and prolactin. Prolactin helps in milk production.

As prolactin levels rose, it took longer for the women to produce breast milk. Higher prolactin levels also accompanied feelings of drunkenness, researchers say.

As for cortisol, it wasn't significantly linked to how much breast milk was produced or how long that took. The data didn't show that the tests themselves were stressful.

Not surprisingly, the women reported feeling drunk, sedated, and not all that great (dysphoric) after drinking the alcohol. Blood alcohol levels peaked 43-51 minutes after downing the drink.

Sleep Shortfall Ties In

Sleep deprivation -- typical among new moms -- can also increase feelings of sedation and dysphoria, say the researchers.

"We hypothesize that sleep deprivation, which is common among mothers of young infants, contributed to the increased feelings of sedation and dysphoria observed on the day lactating women consumed alcohol," they write.

So where did the folklore go wrong? Increases in prolactin after drinking alcohol can make breasts feel full, but that doesn't necessarily mean more milk, say Mennella and colleagues.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Mennella, J. The Journal of Endocrinology & Metabolism, April 2005; vol 90: pp 1979-1985. American Academy of Pediatrics. News release, The Endocrine Society.

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