Drinking While Breastfeeding Study Gets Pushback From Critics

By Kelly Burch 08/03/18

One critic says the study "is so deeply misleading and irresponsible that it falls only a wood shaving short of Pinocchio's nose."

mother holding happy baby

A study released this week suggests that drinking alcohol while breastfeeding can contribute to temporary cognitive delays in children, but critics say that the study is flawed and overreaching. 

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at data from about 5,000 Australian children. It found that children who were breastfed and whose mothers drank while they were breastfeeding, had lower cognitive abilities at ages 6 and 7, although the difference disappeared by ages 10 and 11. 

“Exposing infants to alcohol through breastmilk may cause dose-dependent reductions in their cognitive abilities,” researchers concluded. “Although the relationship is small, it may be clinically significant when mothers consume alcohol regularly or binge drink.”

The study did not examine when these mothers were drinking—whether it was during a time when more alcohol was likely to be transferred to their child via breast milk, or not.  

However, some healthcare providers said that the small but significant finding should cause people to take a second look at the risk of drinking while breastfeeding, which have so far been found to be minimal. 

"Previous recommendations that reveal limited alcohol consumption to be compatible with breastfeeding during critical periods of development, such as the first months of life, may need to be reconsidered in light of this combined evidence,” Dr. Lauren M. Jansson, director of pediatrics at the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy and an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, wrote in a commentary published with the study.

Dr. Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor of medicine at Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School, told CNN that the safest option is for nursing mothers to forego all alcohol. However, there is not much concrete information on the safety—or lack thereof—of drinking and nursing. 

"I think the study is helpful, but it doesn't definitely answer the question. The question is, how much, if any, alcohol is safe during lactation?" Bartick said. "I would advise mothers to avoid alcohol and not to use alcohol, not to use beer to try to increase their milk supply. I think that's safe to advise.”

Writing for Forbes, healthcare reporter Tara Haelle says the study "is so deeply misleading and irresponsible that it falls only a wood shaving short of Pinocchio's nose."

She also pointed out that the study had many flaws. 

“Here’s what the new Pediatrics study actually found: Children who have ever been breastfed and whose mothers have 'risky drinking habits' in general are more likely to have slightly lower cognitive scores on one reasoning test at 6-7 years old,” she wrote. "But their scores aren’t any different on a vocabulary or an early literacy/math skills test, and there’s no difference in their scores at all when they’re 10-11 years old."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.