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New Study Warns Against Sugary Drinks While Breastfeeding

woman breastfeeding her baby at a cafe

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study finds that consuming too many sugary drinks can negatively impact an infant's cognitive development.
  • Breastfeeding mothers should avoid or cut back on juice, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

It’s common knowledge that alcohol should be avoided while breastfeeding. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition sheds light on another drinking habit that can be detrimental to breastfeeding infants. According to the study, moms who drink lots of sugary beverages while breastfeeding may be impacting their infants’ brain development.

Shocking Statistics About Sugary Drinks

Sugary beverages have a hold on us here in America. The Cancer Action Network reports that more than 50% of American adults consume at least one high-sugar drink daily, and the CDC reports that more than 10% of our daily calories (approximately 145 calories) come from these sugary beverages (less than 10% added sugar is considered the daily threshold for a healthy diet). Now, new research sheds light on how this could affect breastfed newborns.

Study Findings

The study covered 88 mothers who self-reported as consuming approximately 2.5 sugary beverages daily. Researchers followed the babies of these mothers over a 24-month period, and found that "infant neurodevelopmental outcomes at 24 postnatal months can be adversely influenced by maternal fructose intake in early lactation.”

Breastfeeding is often lauded as the gold standard of infant nutrition, offering tons of healthy benefits to developing babies. But some of those benefits can be diluted when a nursing mother makes unhealthy choices for herself, like smoking, drinking alcohol, or even consuming too much sugar in her diet.

Michael Goran, PhD, a co-author of the study, is a professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California and program director for diabetes and obesity with the Saban Research Institute at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. He says, “We don't really know how much sugar in a mom’s diet would constitute a safe level for a baby. What we do know is that other added sugars should be no more than 5%-10% of daily calories, which is not much. That’s why it’s best to minimize consumption of sugary beverages.”

Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation and author of the bestselling book, The Zone Diet, says, “During the newborn child's first 1,000 days of life, their brain is undergoing significant development. So an excessive amount of sugar received in breastmilk in those early days is going to play into that.”

Other Risks of Too Much Sugar

Of course, it’s not just infants that can be adversely affected by sugar-sweetened beverages, or SSBs as nutritionists and scientists refer to them. “Too much fructose intake in one’s diet is shown to increase the risk of obesity, metabolic and cardiac diseases,” says Deedra Franke, RN, BSN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Michael Goran, PhD

Added sugars should be no more than 5%-10% of daily calories, which is not much. That’s why it’s best to minimize consumption of sugary beverages.

— Michael Goran, PhD

In addition, there’s the risk of these sugar-exposed infants developing a life-long affinity for the sweet stuff: a 2014 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that infants who were exposed to sugar-sweetened beverages had a significantly increased likelihood of drinking one or more sugary beverages each day by the time they were six years old.

At an age when growing kids need water for hydration and proper cellular function and milk for strong bones, sugary beverages that take the place of these healthier drinks can cause lifelong health ramifications.

Fortunately, even breastfeeding mothers can enjoy a sweet drink from time to time without the risk of harm to their babies’ cognitive development. "While we would not advise nursing mothers to drink soda (especially if it’s made with high fructose corn syrup), fruit juices or energy drinks, it’s OK to use them in moderation as flavorings to dilute into plain water, sparkling water or homemade flavored waters/sparkling waters,” says Goran.

What This Means For You

If you look forward to a sugary beverage every now and then, there’s little reason to change your habits. But if you’re downing more than one soda or juice each day, consider cutting back. Try to extend your daily soda intake over two or even three days, or enjoy a splash of juice with sparkling water if you crave those fizzy bubbles.

Baby’s first few months of life are a critical period for brain development, so it’s worth it to make a change for your little one's livelihood.

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Article Sources
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  1. Berger PK, Plows JF, Jones RB, et al, Associations of maternal fructose and sugar-sweetened beverage and juice intake during lactation with infant neurodevelopmental outcomes at 24 months. Am J Clin Nutr. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqaa255

  2. Cancer Action Network. Public Policy Resources. Sugary Drinks. January 2, 2020. 

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption. Updated October 2, 2020.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the recommendations for breastfeeding?. Updated January 1, 2017.

  5. Stanhope KL. Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversyCrit Rev Clin Lab Sci. 2016;53(1):52-67. doi:10.3109/10408363.2015.1084990

  6. Park S, Pan L, Sherry B, Li R. The association of sugar-sweetened beverage intake during infancy with sugar-sweetened beverage intake at 6 years of age. Pediatrics. 2014;134(S1):S56-S62. doi:10.1542/peds.2014-0646J

  7. Meyers AM, Mourra D, Beeler JA. High fructose corn syrup induces metabolic dysregulation and altered dopamine signaling in the absence of obesityPLoS One. 2017;12(12):e0190206. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190206

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