There is a common misconception that breastfeeding mothers who drink an alcoholic beverage must “pump and dump,” that is, pump and throw away their breast milk before feeding their babies. On an episode of the show “Parenthood,” which is highly regarded for its excellent treatment of autism, disappointingly referenced a mother’s reluctance to attend of party because of the need to pump and dump if she drank. The reality is that if a breastfeeding mother is drinking there is very little chance that pumping and dumping will be helpful except in very specific circumstances.
See my related article for more information on Drinking Alcohol While Breastfeeding. This article will speak specifically to the need (or lack of need) to pump and dump if drinking.
It is important to understand first the science of alcohol in breastmilk. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) less than 2% of the alcohol reaches the mother’s blood or milk. Alcohol also generally peaks in the milk and bloodstream approximately 30-60 minutes after consumption, although this can vary with individual body type and circumstances. Most experts agree that the amount of alcohol transferred from one reasonable alcoholic drink will not harm a baby.
It is also critical to understand that alcohol, unlike many prescription (and non-prescription) drugs, is not stored permanently in breast milk. Just as alcohol is removed from the blood by the body, it also passes out of the milk. So there are a couple rules when a breastfeeding mother is drinking.
If the mother is with the baby, plans to nurse, and has no other means planned to feed the baby, limit alcohol consumption to one reasonable strength drink. For the least possible consumption of alcohol by the baby, feed before drinking and wait 2-3 hours before feeding again to pass the peak of alcohol in the milk, although again, most experts do not think one drink is really a problem in any case.
If the mother is not with the baby, and is not in any discomfort from milk fullness in the breast, there is no need to pump and dump. Once the alcohol is metabolized from the body, the breast milk is fine to feed the baby. Pumping the milk does not remove alcohol from the body any faster. It will continue to be in any breast milk produced while it is present in the body, but again, will be removed from the milk as it is from the rest of the body.
The only reason to pump while drinking is if the mother is uncomfortable, or if the length of separation from the baby (or the wait while the alcohol is metabolized) necessitates a pumping session to protect milk supply. If milk is pumped while there is alcohol in the body, only then it would then be appropriate to “dump” it if there is concern about the level s of alcohol (if the mother has drunk more than recommended, or still feeling the effects of alcohol at the time of pumping).
For a comprehensive overview of the effects of alcohol on lactation see Alcohol's Effect on Lactation –from the National Institutes of Health
For more information on breastfeeding, here's two of my favorite books:
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