Does drinking a beer really help milk supply?
In short, no.
This pervasive breastfeeding myth is one a lot of moms really want to hold on to. Here we dissect the science and why some women really feel a beer helps their milk production despite overwhelming scientific evidence that alcohol inhibits milk production and let down.
Some women feel engorged after a beer. This could be happening for several reasons:
1. Babies take in less milk when mom has consumed alcohol. Since the baby has more “left over” milk in the breast, mom may not feel empty and be tricked into think her production is higher.
From Developmental Psychobiology (Mennella, Beauchamp 1993)
“The infants consumed significantly less milk during the 4-hr testing sessions in which their mothers drank alcoholic beer compared to when the mothers drank nonalcoholic beer; this decrease in milk intake was not due to a decrease in the number of times the babies fed. Although the infants consumed less of the alcohol-flavored milk, the mothers believed their infants had ingested enough milk, reported that they experienced a letdown during nursing, and felt they had milk remaining in their breasts at the end of the majority of feedings.”
2. Mom lets down less milk when alcohol is in her system. Again, more milk is left in the breast to trick mom into thinking her production has increased.
3. Timing is powerful. Most of us drink in the evening hours when babies are asleep and going longer between feeds. Prolactin, the milk making hormone, peaks late at night/ early in the morning. This is the time the body is naturally set to make the most milk.
Some women report greater pump output in the morning after having a beer with dinner. Again, if the baby nursed through the night, studies show the baby took in less milk and less milk was let down. There are more “left overs” to pump out, but not actually more milk produced.
But WAIT! Beer is made from lactogenic foods, right?
Thomas Hale’s Medications and Mothers’ Milk (12th ed.):
“Beer, but not ethanol, has been reported in a number of studies to stimulate prolactin levels and breastmilk production. Thus it is presumed that the polysaccharide from barley may be the prolactin-stimulating component of beer. Non-alcoholic beer is equally effective.”
Moms could choose to eat barley. There is nothing inherent in the brewing process or present in alcohol that increases milk production. Also, simply increasing prolactin is not sufficient for increased milk production. Mothers will need to pump or nurse more frequently as well. Increased prolactin will not increase breast storage capacity either.
Where on earth did this myth originate?
No one really knows when the first brewed beverage was recommended for a nursing mom, but we have some great recent history to show about the power of this myth. A long discontinued product called “Malt Nutrine” was made by Anheuser Bush and widely marketed as a health tonic. Antiques aficionados are a great source of info on this marketing campaign directed at pregnant and nursing mothers and even children. See some of these old time advertisements in this gallery! Convents and monasteries were also breweries and provided public health services in times long ago. Nuns often served as midwives and brought brewed drinks to new mothers.
So is alcohol dangerous?
Dr. Jack Newman, from his handout “More Breastfeeding Myths”:
Reasonable alcohol intake should not be discouraged at all. As is the case with most drugs, very little alcohol comes out in the milk. The mother can take some alcohol and continue breastfeeding as she normally does. Prohibiting alcohol is another way we make life unnecessarily restrictive for nursing mothers.
Scientific Studies for Further Reading
Marks V, Wright JW. Endocrinological and metabolic effects of alcohol. Proc R Soc Med 1977; 70(5):337-344.
De Rosa G, Corsello SM, Rufilli MP, Della CS, Pasargiklian E. Prolactin secretion after beer. Lancet 1982; 2(8252):934.
Carolson HE, Wasser HL, Reidelberger RD. Beer-induced prolactin secretion: a clinical and laboratory study of the role of salsolinol. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1985; 60(4):673-677.
Koletzko B, Lehner F. Beer and breastfeeding. Adv Exp Med Biol 2000; 478:23-28.
Mennella JA, Beauchamp GK. The transfer of alcohol to human milk. Effects on flavor and the infant’s behavior. N Engl J Med 1991; 325(14):981-985.
Cobo E. Effect of different doses of ethanol on the milk-ejecting reflex in lactating women. Am J Obstet Gynecol 1973; 115(6):817-821.
Mennella JA. Regulation of milk intake after exposure to alcohol in mothers’ milk. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 2001; 25(4):590-593.