Two updated resources are available about alcohol and breastfeeding: a research update from CanFASD Alcohol and Breastfeeding and a brochure from Best Start Mixing Alcohol and Breastfeeding. They both illustrate how little research there is available, and how public health messaging directed to new mothers has changed over time.
The public health message currently offered to mothers is that it is safest not to drink alcohol when breastfeeding and if one chooses to drink, to avoid drinking near the time of breastfeeding, so that infants are exposed to the very least amount of alcohol. Some recent studies about alcohol use when breastfeeding have not found negative effects for infants – and instead, have found that low level drinking during breastfeeding was not associated with shorter breastfeeding duration or adverse outcomes in infants up to 12 months of age. These adverse outcomes included effects on infant feeding and sleeping behaviour, as well as developmental outcomes .
Yet, infants cannot metabolize alcohol in the same way as adults, and exposure to alcohol places them at risk of potential alcohol-related harm, in the short, if not long term. As a result, the weight of decision-making about breastfeeding and drinking alcohol rests on women. What is low level drinking, and how can one assess the many confounding factors related to alcohol’s effects – sex, genetics, nutrition, use of other substances, etc.? All of these issues are in play for their own, and their infant’s health.
Similarly, in light of cannabis legalization, more attention has been placed on the impact of cannabis use on breastfeeding. As with alcohol, initial public health messaging focussed on the studies that showed risk. But, a recent review of the literature led by Dr. Alice Ordean of St Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, found only two articles that addressed the impact of postpartum cannabis use by lactating women that provided developmental outcomes for infants . That review found some evidence regarding health risks of post-natal exposure to cannabis, but the authors noted that further research is needed to determine the impact of cannabis exposure via breastmilk on infant neurodevelopmental outcomes beyond the first year of life. They concluded that given the conflicting evidence on outcomes from exposure to cannabis in breast milk, women are advised that it is safest to abstain from cannabis use during lactation and to reduce consumption and plan timing for least exposure, if abstinence is not possible.
What has changed in our public health messaging? As well as repeating the sound advice that it is safest not to use these substances when breastfeeding, practical harm reduction advice is also offered. In the case of alcohol, women are advised to plan ahead to consume alcohol immediately after, and not before, breastfeeding, so that infants are exposed to the very least amount of alcohol. In the case of cannabis, women are advised to avoid breastfeeding within 1 hour of inhaled use to reduce exposure to highest concentration of cannabis in breast milk.
In addition to what is known and not known about the effects of exposure to substances when breastfeeding, there are many other reasons women may need to think critically about their alcohol and cannabis use as new mothers. These include relational attachment, fatigue, risk of exposure to 2nd and 3rd hand smoke for infants and children, and role modelling healthy behaviour. With limited evidence, the benefits and drawbacks of low level alcohol and/or cannabis use will continue to be forefront for breastfeeding mothers.
- Tay, R.Y., et al., Alcohol consumption by breastfeeding mothers: Frequency, correlates, and infant outcomes. Drug and Alcohol Review, 2017. 36: p. 667-676.
- Ordean, A. and G. Kim, Cannabis Use During Lactation: Literature Review and Clinical Recommendations. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada, epub January 25, 2020.
Alcohol and Breastfeeding. CanFASD Research Network April 2020
Mixing Alcohol and Breastfeeding. Best Start/Health Nexus 2020
Cannabis Use During Pregnancy & Lacatation: Practice Resources for Health Care Proivders. Perinatal Services BC 2020