Designed by two moms, Milkscreen works as follows: Saturate the test pad with some breast milk, wait two minutes, and if the pad changes color, voila! Alcohol is present in your milk. This information is supposed to help you decide whether or not it’s “safe” to nurse after having had that beer on a hot summer night.
So what’s the problem?
When it comes to alcohol, there’s a huge difference between getting roaring drunk and having an occasional glass of wine. Milkscreen does not differentiate. Either there’s alcohol in your milk, or there’s not. The results are the same whether you had a single glass of champagne, a full six-pack, or even a dose of NyQuil.
Experts agree that drinking alcohol in moderation is not incompatible with breastfeeding. “Prohibiting alcohol is another way we make life unnecessarily restrictive for nursing mothers,” asserts Dr. Jack Newman, author of numerous books and articles on breastfeeding and a member of the LLLI Health Advisory Council. And the more rules associated with breastfeeding, the less likely they will nurse, adds lactation consultant Amy Spangler. “Mothers need to trust themselves,” Spangler says. “They don’t need to test their milk.”
Women take plenty of over-the-counter and prescription medication and continue to safely nurse their children. Even smokers are encouraged to nurse because in spite of the presence of nicotine in their milk, their own milk is still preferable to formula. And why the obsession of breast milk safety in the first place? As lactation consultant Linda Smith asserts, “Nobody is marketing a test for the safety of formula!”
Formula remains a far more risky choice than good old-fashioned breast milk. In her fascinating and provocative book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, biologist Sandra Steingraber presents a frightening assessment of the degree to which traces of pesticides and toxic chemicals are found in the breast milk of women all over the planet. Yet Steingraber remains a staunch proponent of breastfeeding and indeed nursed her own children for several years each. Why? Because formula is still riskier than breast milk, even when that that milk has traces of alcohol in it. “We spend an awful lot of time balancing small theoretical hazards of breast milk against actual hazards of formula,” asserts lactation consultant Diane Wiessinger.
A Balanced View
I’m not trying to be cavalier about alcohol. Excessive drinking can affect your baby’s ability to nurse effectively and can inhibit milk production, as well. But experts agree that drinking in moderation is not incompatible with breastfeeding. And a little judgment and common sense are at least as effective as a simplistic test. Are you drinking on an empty or full stomach? (Food decreases the absorption of alcohol.) How much will you be drinking? (The more you feel the affects, the more your baby will; the more you drink, the longer it will take for the affects to wear off.) How do you metabolize alcohol? (Heavier people can metabolize alcohol more quickly than lighter folks.) Finally, how old is your baby? )A newborn’s liver is immature and he will feel the effects of alcohol more than an older baby.)
The bottom line? If you drink a lot, don’t nurse. And seek help. Heavy drinking will affect your mothering ability in more areas than breastfeeding. But breast milk is rarely a dangerous substance from which babies need protection. “If a mother is so drunk that she’s at risk of dropping the baby,” asserts lactation consultant Linda Smith, “she needs help with the baby!”