Drinking while breastfeeding could lead to lower cognition in children

30 July 2018
breastfeeding mother

Breastfeeding mothers who drink alcohol may be more likely to have children with cognitive problems, according to an Australian study.

The researchers examined results of reasoning tests completed by 5,107 children in the Growing Up in Australia study and published their findings in the journal Pediatrics.

They also explored questionnaires completed by their mothers detailing whether they breastfed, and how often they smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol while pregnant or breastfeeding.

The research found that breastfed babies whose mothers drank alcohol when nursing had lower nonverbal reasoning scores at six to seven years old and their scores were worse the more the women drank.

The researchers say the lower nonverbal reasoning scores for children whose mothers drank alcohol while breastfeeding were independent of other factors, including prenatal alcohol consumption and socio-economic factors.

They say: “This suggests that alcohol exposure through breastmilk was responsible for cognitive reductions in breastfed infants rather than psychosocial or environmental factors surrounding maternal alcohol consumption. This supports the suggestion that alcohol exposure through breastmilk can reduce cognition in children.”

Women who smoked cigarettes when they were breastfeeding, however, didn’t appear to have children with different cognitive test scores than mothers who were non-smokers.  

Prenatal alcohol and nicotine exposure have long been linked to cognitive problems in children, but this study offers fresh insight into the risks posed by exposure during lactation.

The findings also showed that children exposed to alcohol in breast milk had lower cognitive test scores than other kids even when their mothers didn’t smoke or drink while pregnant.

However, the effects of alcohol were no longer apparent in test scores by the time children were 10 to 11 years old.

One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked data on binge drinking during pregnancy, which is independently associated with cognitive problems in children.

The study authors say more research is needed to identify why or how alcohol in breast milk may impair brain development.

“Although the current analyses found an association between increased or riskier alcohol consumption while breastfeeding and matrix reasoning scores, the mechanism is unclear. Consistent with animal models, ethanol in breastmilk may interfere with normal brain development,” they say.

You can find out more about this study here.