There are few, if any, times of your life when you will feel more tired than the early weeks with a new baby. The relentless nights of interrupted sleep take their toll, and breastfeeding itself is often exhausting. Caffeine can seem like a necessity in order to function during the day, but you might be wondering whether it is harmful to your baby to consume caffeine while breastfeeding.
Caffeine in Breastmilk
While it is known for certain that the caffeine you consume by drinking coffee, tea, and through other common caffeine-containing foods and drinks will go into your breastmilk, the actual amount of caffeine in the breastmilk of women who consume caffeine varies. There are great differences between the amounts of caffeine contained in foods and drinks, and also in the rates of absorption and elimination of caffeine from one woman to another.
Your baby also has to process the caffeine received through your breastmilk, and is unable to do this very quickly. This can lead to caffeine building up in your baby's system, if you aren't careful about spacing your own caffeine intake and your breastfeeding sessions. To give you an idea of how long it takes, the half life of caffeine for a newborn baby is about 3-4 days, compared to 2.5 hours for a six month old. For you, it's about an hour and a half.
Tip: It is difficult to predict how much caffeine your baby will get through your breastmilk, but sticking to one cup a day, and feeding your baby before drinking caffeinated beverages, then waiting three hours before breastfeeding again, will reduce the risk.
Nutritional Effects of Caffeine on Breastmilk
Caffeine affects the composition of your breastmilk. The breastmilk of women who regularly drink three cups of coffee per day during pregnancy and breastfeeding contains a third less iron than women who don't drink coffee. This can result in lower hemoglobin and hematocrit in mothers who drink coffee and their babies. Iron-deficiency anemia is prevalent in countries where heavy coffee consumption is common.
Tip: Avoiding coffee and other caffeinated foods and drinks will improve the nutritional quality of your breastmilk.
Effects of Caffeine on Your Baby
Caffeine is a stimulant, and so babies who consume caffeine are more "wide awake" and jittery, colicky, constipated, and unsettled than those who do not. In fact, caffeine is sometimes used therapeutically to stimulate preemies who are at risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Caffeine can therefore have a significant impact on your baby's ability to settle to sleep. Moms can get into a self-perpetuating cycle of drinking a lot of caffeine to cope with the tiredness of having an unsettled baby, while the baby is unsettled because they are overstimulated.
Tip: If your baby is difficult to settle, adjusting your caffeine intake could improve the situation.
Caffeine withdrawal is uncomfortable, so suddenly stopping caffeine if you've been drinking a lot will probably lead to headaches and irritability in yourself and your baby.
Tip: Taper off your caffeine use gently to avoid distress in yourself and your baby. Although headaches are a common withdrawal symptom, painkillers are not a good idea when breastfeeding.
The Bottom Line
At this point, caffeine is not considered to be incompatible with breastfeeding, and can actually stimulate babies who are at risk of apnea. But it may reduce the nutritional benefit of your breastmilk over time, and it may contribute to difficulties settling your baby, ironically leaving you even more tired. Careful timing of your caffeine consumption will help. But remember that caffeine has a number of harmful effects when over-used, which may also affect your baby.
American Academy of Pediatrics "The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals into Human Milk." Pediatrics 108:776-789. 2001.
Clement, M., "Caffeine and Babies." British Medical Journal 298:1461. 1989.
Liston, J., "Breastfeeding and the Use of Recreational Drugs -- Alcohol, Caffeine, Nicotine and Marijuana." Breastfeeding Review 6:27-30. 1998.