Beer and Breastfeeding

Drinking a little beer each night is sometimes suggested as a traditional idea to increase a mother’s breast milk supply. However, you may have also heard the opposite advice—that drinking any kind of alcohol can reduce a mother’s milk supply. This article looks at how alcohol can affect breast milk, the history behind beer and breastfeeding and whether there is any truth in the idea that beer can help with milk volume.

Can alcohol increase my milk supply?

No. Studies have shown that alcohol interferes with the release of oxytocin which affects the let down of your breast milk 1. Rather than increasing your milk supply, your breast milk volumes are more likely to be lowered by alcohol. Authors West and Marasco explain:

Alcohol itself inhibits both the milk ejection reflex and milk production, especially when taken in large amounts. Even a moderate amount, such as a single beer or glass of wine, can disrupt the balance of lactation hormones in breastfeeding women. While the immediate effects of alcohol on milk production and delivery last only as long as the alcohol is in your system, chronic alcohol use has the potential to lower your milk supply overall.

Is drinking beer for milk supply an old wives’ tale?

Yes—and no. The idea that drinking beer can help with milk supply dates back through the centuries. Historically, beer was made in quite a different way to the commercial beers of today and with different ingredients. In the past it was full of grains and herbs thought to increase the flow of a mother’s milk (known as galactagogues). The alcohol content was lower and the nutritional content higher so that the milk increasing ingredients had a greater effect than the milk reducing alcohol content. Therefore there was probably some truth in the idea that these traditional beers could help with milk supply. See the interesting article below for a full explanation of the history of beer as a galactagogue:

Historically, the beer used by mothers to increase their supply was nutritionally rich and low in alcohol. In home brewing, the so-called “mashing” (or boiling of malt, grains and herbs), was performed twice with the same grains and herbs. Whereas the first mashing returns a strong alcoholic beer, the second mashing returns a low-alcoholic beverage called “small beer” that was loosely filtered—a thin, porridge-like fluid that could practically be eaten!

This “small beer” was viewed as a healthy, nutritious beverage that could be given to children, servants, to men performing hard labor, and to pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

This then is the typical, historical beer used by breastfeeding mothers: stronger in nutrition, weaker in alcohol. It is quite a different brew from any commercial beer today. It is important to keep this in mind. Our typical, light-colored alcoholic beers do not contain enough lactogenic ingredients to counteract the anti-galactagogue effects of alcohol. These beers can lead to a decrease in supply! Non-alcoholic beer, however, especially if rich in barley or hops, can be a good galactogogue.

Beer and breastfeeding

Pharmacist Thomas Hale, author of Medications & Mothers’ Milk, confirms that modern beer will not help increase your milk supply, but an occasional drink is unlikely to be a problem:

The old suggestions that beer enhances milk production are simply wrong. It actually reduces the release of milk from the breast. If you have a robust milk supply, and your infant is gaining well, an occasional drink followed by a waiting period is unlikely to reduce your milk supply.

Alcohol and breastfeeding safety

Drinking small amounts of alcohol occasionally won’t affect your baby but drinking regularly or heavily may lead to drowsiness, deep sleep, weakness and decreased growth for your baby. Drinking more than two units a day may affect your baby’s development 2 3. See the article Breastfeeding and Drinking Alcohol for further guidance on the safety of drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.

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Summary

Historically beers were very different to the modern beers made today, they were full of lactogenic (milk making) ingredients and lower in alcohol. There was probably some truth in the belief that these “small beers” could help a mother’s breast milk supply. However, as our modern beers do not contain the same ingredients as traditional beers, and generally have more alcohol, they are more likely to reduce milk supply if taken regularly. Some alcohol-free beers, particularly if rich in barley or hops, may have a lactogenic effect. If you are seeking ideas to increase your milk supply, see How to Make More Breast Milk or contact an IBCLC lactation consultant or breastfeeding specialist.

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