Guinness Irish Stout is the drink of choice for many on St. Patrick’s Day. I am a huge Guinness fan—the stout was up there with margaritas for most-craved drinks during pregnancy. Which may be partly because of the longtime association between Guinness and breastfeeding moms.
I remember looking forward to my first sanctioned Guinness, and I remember when I had it, too. My son was born just after they changed the laws in New York to prohibit smoking in bars. So as soon as I was ready to socialize publicly, we took a summer stroll around the corner to a cozy neighborhood spot with velvet couches, and I nursed my baby while nursing a half pint of Guinness. Tough job, but I had my milk supply to consider, right?
Well, maybe. It’s true that Guinness, and beer in general, does contain ingredients known to increase milk supply in some women. But that’s not quite the whole story.
The ingredient in beer that’s good for breastfeeding is barley, which contains polysaccharides, which can stimulate prolactin, which is the hormone that triggers milk production.
The ingredient in beer that’s BAD for breastfeeding is alcohol.
Putting aside the question of the effects of the alcohol on the nursing infant (a very controversial subject with a lot of conflicting research surrounding it). Alcohol can have some contradictory effects on the physical act of breastfeeding. Alcohol is a sedative, which can be a good thing for moms who are stressed. And in the early days and weeks of breastfeeding, most moms are pretty stressed during feedings. So that part can actually help. But studies show that while alcohol can help relaxation which can help milk let-down, it can actually inhibit milk production and reduce the actual quantity of milk the baby gets. It’s not clear if some women are more responsive to the polysaccharides and some to the alcohol, or what, but it seems like beer’s reputation as a milk supply amplifier is not entirely credible.
The best of both worlds, it seems,would be a beer with barley but not alcohol. For breastfeeding, that is. For moms…well, I’ll let you make your own best choices.