Everything You Need to Know About Caffeine, Pregnancy & Breastfeeding

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One morning, I was grabbing a coffee at a coffee shop just around the corner from my workplace. I go there sometimes, when I leave my house and arrive early to work. I would spend the extra 15 minutes to drink my coffee and study a bit of my nursing material. At the time, I was preparing for my NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination).

Everyone could see that I was visibly pregnant. Of course, at 32 weeks, I was definitely showing, and you can also tell by all the stares that came my way when I stepped foot into the shop.

No, I didn’t order decaffeinated coffee. I ordered a regular one. And I just have one cup per day, but not every day.

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When the barista took my order, he was hesitant. He looked at my swelling belly, then at my face, and then at his coworker. I was waiting for him to say something, and he did. He simply said,

oh, you know we also have decaffeinated coffee and espresso too.”

I was empathetic and tried to understand that this man’s concern came from a good place. So I kindly declined his offer and asked for a regular coffee. Then I proceeded to say that one cup a day is fine.

And although it looked like he didn’t believe me, he went ahead and poured me a cup of caffeinated coffee anyway.

I will say that this did bother me. I’m sure he thought very little of me to be drinking caffeine while carrying a child. But seriously? Did he think I was drinking alcohol everyday too?

I respect his concern but he didn’t respect the fact, that I did my research and that if he wanted to correct me about something, maybe he should have done his research too.

Obviously, I am not the first pregnant woman to experience this. In fact, my experience was pretty mild compared to others.

Have you heard about the one where a grandmother literally snatched and threw away a pregnant woman’s cold brew coffee?! Mamma-mia…

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Is it safe to drink caffeinated coffee during pregnancy?

After the first trimester, it is safe to drink ONE CUP of caffeinated coffee per day and by one cup, I mean 200 mg of caffeine or a 10-12 ounce cup depending on where you go.

I know, research can make this all very confusing. New studies continue to combat each other. Some say it’s not okay to have a cup a day, and then other studies refute these results and claim that these conventional pregnancy theories are a thing of the past.

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Photo by Alicia Petresc on Unsplash

But one fact is true – there is some sort of link between caffeine and miscarriages, stillbirths, and low weight births, especially when consumed in the first trimester.

The problem with this fact is that we cannot apply a quantity of how much caffeine to these risks or determine the true cause and effect relationship between the two.

However, studies do show that consumption of caffeine over the recommended 200 mg per day results in double the risk of miscarriages and low birth weights.

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Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash

How does caffeine affect the human body?

Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant. In the brain, caffeine causes alertness which is why many of us consume caffeine.

Basically, the stimulant blocks adenosine from connecting to adenosine receptors in the brain. (Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that causes relaxation and sleepiness.) The chemical structure of caffeine is very similar to the structure of adenosine. Caffeine therefore, binds to the adenosine receptors and blocks adenosine from binding to it. This blocks feelings of sleepiness formerly brought on by adenosine, and the release of other natural stimulants such as dopamine. (Dopamine is also a neurotransmitter released by nerve cells and contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.)

We use caffeine to:

  • manage drowsiness
  • manage headaches
  • increase metabolism
  • enhance exercise performance
  • boost your mood
  • increase concentration
  • increases motivation to work

The peak effect of this stimulant occurs after approximately 30 minutes after consumption.

Consuming too much caffeine can cause:

  • insomnia
  • nervousness
  • restlessness
  • irritability
  • upset stomach
  • increased heart rate
  • increased blood pressure
  • muscle tremors

It is also a diuretic, meaning it increases urination. This causes the body to release more fluids through urine possibly resulting in dehydration.

How is caffeine addictive?

Caffeine can be physically addictive and behaviourally addictive, especially in those who consume caffeine on a regular and sustained basis.

Physical addiction to caffeine occurs when the body produces more adenosine receptors to make up for the ones that are blocked by caffeine. This means that there are now more receptors that caffeine can bind to, requiring you to drink more coffee to “fill” those additional receptors. This also explains how coffee drinkers build up a tolerance and require more coffee over time.

Behavioural addiction occurs through the repetition of drinking the coffee in a social environment and the positive feelings involved in that environment, rather than the caffeine itself.

Withdrawal from caffeine can cause:

  • headaches
  • lack of concentration
  • drowsiness
  • irritability

How does caffeine affect the growing fetus?

Caffeine can directly and easily pass through the placenta to the fetus. Adults can metabolize caffeine but the fetus cannot, especially in the early phases of development.

As mentioned above, caffeine binds to our receptors altering the chemistry of our brains and effecting our cells, membranes and tissue. This change in chemistry may interfere with proper development of the fetus.

Another theory proposes that the vaso-constricting (constriction of blood vessels) properties of caffeine may cause increased blood pressure in the mother, leading to decreased blood flow to the fetus. The lack of blood flow to the placenta deprives the fetus of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to grow.

Caffeine not only increases blood pressure but also blood glucose levels as well. And it increases the workload of the liver that is already dealing with the increased hormonal demands of pregnancy.

Is it safe to consume caffeine while breastfeeding?

It is safe to drink caffeinated coffee while breastfeeding. Keep in mind that caffeine does pass through to your baby through breast milk, but only in trace amounts (approximately 1% of what you take in).

When breastfeeding, it is recommended that you should consume no more than 3 to 5 cups of coffee per day or no more than 300 mg daily.

If you drink about 3-5 cups of coffee, make sure to spread the consumption throughout the day to prevent high concentrations of caffeine in your breast milk.

If you find that your baby is becoming more restless and cranky after you’ve have coffee and breastfed, it may be time to reassess your intake amount.

How do you cut back on caffeine?

For chronic coffee drinkers who are or will be pregnant, it is important to wean yourself off of caffeine rather than stop cold turkey.

Start by mixing half caffeinated coffee with half decaffeinated coffee at first. Then eventually work towards drinking decaffeinated coffee entirely.

What other foods and drinks contain caffeine?

Besides coffee, caffeine can also be found in the following and should be consumed in moderation:

  • espresso beans
  • tea leaves
  • sodas
  • chocolate (cocoa beans)
  • energy drinks
  • some over the counter medication

As I’ve always mentioned, it is very important that you talk to your doctor about your caffeine consumption during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

We all know that mothers and mothers-to-be must make a lot of sacrifices for their growing babies but luckily, a cup of Joe doesn’t have to be one of them!

Thanks for reading.

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