There's no doubt about it — parents of little ones are T-I-R-E-D. Many adults turn to caffeine when they need a pick-me-up, but if you're breastfeeding or chestfeeding, you might be unsure whether you can still reach for your favorite cup of joe or other caffeinated beverage of choice.
We reached out to breastfeeding specialists to give exhausted breastfeeding parents the low-down on caffeine and breastfeeding, including how to time your coffee consumption, how much caffeine is OK, what the potential risks are to your baby and which coffee alternatives are acceptable.
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Is Caffeine Safe While Breastfeeding?
If you're breastfeeding a little one, you might have heard you have to be careful what you eat and drink because of how it might affect your baby. In general, though, there are very few foods breastfeeding parents have to steer completely clear of, and that includes food and drinks that contain caffeine, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, that doesn't mean you can have as much caffeine as you want.
So, if you're asking yourself, "Can I drink coffee while breastfeeding?" the answer is yes, but in moderation.
"Generally, caffeine is considered safe while breastfeeding," says Andrea L. Braden, MD, IBCLC, an ob-gyn, breastfeeding medicine specialist and CEO and co-founder of Lybbie, a brand that aims to empower people to have a successful breastfeeding experience.
According to Dr. Braden, there aren't many high-quality studies about caffeine while breastfeeding, but most experts agree that drinking moderate amounts should be safe.
Both the CDC and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) are in line with this thinking as well, and say that moderate caffeine consumption is acceptable while nursing a baby.
How Much Caffeine Can You Have While Breastfeeding?
The CDC recommends breastfeeding parents consume no more than 300 milligrams of caffeine per day. That's about two to three cups of home-brewed coffee, depending how strong you make it.
"For reference, most 8-ounce cups of coffee contain 90 to 100 milligrams of caffeine," says Jessica Madden, MD, IBCLC, breastfeeding medicine and infant feeding specialist and the medical director of Aeroflow Breastpumps.
Another aspect to keep in mind, says Dr. Madden, is the timing of your caffeine consumption.
"Caffeine levels are highest in breastmilk 60 to 120 minutes after drinking coffee, so it's preferable to nurse or pump prior to drinking a cup of coffee," she explains.
Generally, because moderate amounts of caffeine don't cause symptoms in babies, the timing of your caffeine consumption shouldn't matter too much, says David Berger, MD, board-certified pediatrician and owner of Wholistic Pediatrics & Family Care and health education company Dr. David, MD.
But he says it may be wise to stay away from caffeine when it's close to your baby's bedtime. "If too much is consumed in the early evening, nighttime breastfeeding could bring the caffeine stimulation that could disturb sleep," Dr. Berger says.
Additionally, keep in mind that coffee isn't the only source of caffeine, so when you are considering amounts to consume, consider all the sources of caffeine in your diet, including soda, energy drinks, chocolate and tea.
Risks of Too Much Caffeine While Breastfeeding
Consuming moderate amounts of caffeine — around 300 milligrams a day or less — is usually not risky for your baby, says Dr. Berger, and will rarely cause symptoms at all.
However, when you have larger amounts of caffeine, it's possible your baby may experience adverse effects. "Like adults, babies can develop symptoms if they consume too much caffeine," Dr. Madden says (more on those in a minute).
It's also important to keep in mind that some babies may be more vulnerable to the effects of caffeine than others, so it may be necessary to stick to even smaller amounts in certain cases.
"Young newborns and preterm infants metabolize caffeine very slowly, so experts recommend that caffeine exposure is limited to less than 300 milligrams per day for these special populations," Dr. Braden notes.
Here's what to know about the risks of too much coffee consumption in babies.
1. Irritability and Hyperactivity
According to the CDC, research has found that excessive amounts of caffeine in breastfeeding parents can lead to symptoms like irritability, fussiness and jitteriness in infants.
However, this is when parents consume the equivalent of 10 cups of coffee per day (which, for the record, is far beyond the recommended max of four cups for healthy adults who are not breastfeeding). In these cases, decreasing your caffeine consumption should stop these symptoms from continuing.
2. Sleep Issues
As noted in LactMed, a lactation database sponsored by the National Library of Medicine, there have been several reports of breastfed infants having sleep issues when their breastfeeding parents consumed high levels of caffeine.
Symptoms included waking frequently, sleeping for short durations, having abnormal sleep patterns and being "fretful and jumpy."
Again, though, this happened when parents consumed more than the recommended amount of caffeine.
3. Iron Deficiency
Although the research is scant, there's some evidence that caffeine consumption can affect the iron content of breastmilk.
"Coffee intake of 450 milliliters may be associated with decreased iron in breastmilk and can result in iron-deficiency anemia in some infants," Dr. Braden explains.
This is based on one older study referenced in LactMed, where consuming more than 450 milliliters (about two cups) of coffee daily was correlated with lower iron levels in both birthing parents and their babies at birth, and at one month postpartum.
Symptoms of low iron in babies include the following, per the National Library of Medicine:
- Shortness of breath
- Eating less food
- A sore tongue
- Headaches or dizziness
If you're worried about your baby's iron levels, ask your pediatrician about a blood test to check them.
Effects on Breastfeeding Parents
Thankfully, there isn't evidence that caffeine consumption lowers a breastfeeding parent's milk supply, says Dr. Berger.
But consuming too much caffeine (especially later in the day) can affect your sleep, so that's something to keep an eye on.
"If the parent's sleep is not good because of the caffeine, that would potentially impact their abilities as a caregiver," Dr. Berger suggests.
How to Cut Back on Caffeine if You Need To
If you're someone who's used to drinking more than the recommended amount of caffeine per day for breastfeeding parents, or you suspect your baby is reacting to your caffeine consumption, it might be time to cut back.
When cutting back on caffeine, Dr. Braden recommends a slow and gradual approach so you can reduce side effects like withdrawal headaches.
"One way to do this is to substitute one caffeinated drink a day with a non-caffeinated alternative," she suggests. "This could be in the form of a caffeine-free version of the same beverage or something completely new and different."
If you drop the one caffeinated beverage without side effects, you can start to replace other caffeinated drinks in the same gradual way until you reach the level of caffeine intake you're aiming for, she adds.
And what about coffee alternatives, such as Teeccino, Coffig, Dandy Blend and others? As long as the coffee alternative you are considering isn't caffeinated, it should be fine to drink.
"There are no absolute dietary contraindications to breastfeeding, so rest-assured," Dr. Braden says.
Decaf coffee is fine, too, Dr. Madden says. But keep in mind that decaf still contains a small amount of caffeine, so you don't want to go overboard.
"To my knowledge, most coffee alternatives are safe while breastfeeding, but it's really important to make sure that coffee alternatives do not contain too much caffeine," Dr. Madden says.
That means reading labels and keeping track of your caffeine consumption so you don't reach the 300-milligram-per-day threshold.
If weaning from caffeine is challenging, especially as you are caring for a baby who likely wakes up to feed multiple times a night, you are far from alone.
Here, Dr. Braden shares her top tips for making it through this time:
- Find creative ways to catch more zzzs, including napping, sleeping in on weekends and sleeping when your baby does.
- Make sure to add some exercise or movement into your day, as this can give your energy a boost.
- Eat a well-balanced diet, and remember that breastfeeding parents need an additional 330 to 400 calories per day, according to the CDC.
- Make sure your diet is rich in iodine (think: dairy foods, cod, iodized salt) and high in choline (e.g., beef, eggs, soybeans) — the CDC recommends breastfeeding parents get 290 micrograms of iodine and 550 milligrams of choline each day.
- If you are a vegetarian or vegan, consider supplementing with vitamin B12.
If you're wondering if you can drink coffee while breastfeeding, you're not the only one! Breastfeeding parents are understandably tired and may be looking for info about caffeine while breastfeeding.
Luckily, it's generally OK to drink two to three cups of home-brewed coffee per day.
All babies are different, though, and if you have a premature baby or if your baby seems to be more fussy or wakeful when you consume caffeine, you may have to adjust your intake.
If you have more questions about caffeine and breastfeeding, or questions about your baby's health or breastfeeding in general, don't hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: "Breastfeeding Your Baby"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Maternal Diet"
- LactMed: "Caffeine"
- National Library of Medicine: "Anemia caused by low iron - infants and toddlers"
- American Bone Health: "Coffee, Tea and Bone Health"
- Osteoporosis International: "The effects of caffeine on bone mineral density and fracture risk"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.