Caffeine During Pregnancy: Is It Safe?

By:    Published: July 8, 2014

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Many a pregnant woman has wondered about the safety of caffeine during pregnancy. The question of whether or not to give up that beloved latte is not always a simple one to answer. Some experts say that the morning cup of Joe needs to go, while others say that it's fine in moderation. So what's a woman to do when it comes to having caffeine during pregnancy? The answer is as highly individual as the woman's pregnancy itself.

Is Caffeine Safe During Pregnancy?

This is the million dollar question. The short answer is yes…and no. The question of safety when it comes to caffeine depends on the amount being ingested. The less caffeine a pregnant woman consumes, the better, but stopping cold turkey can cause some problems for the mother as well, like caffeine withdrawals.

Research on the issue is conflicting. Some studies show that caffeine is associated with a number of problems for the fetus, but the only solid data available is based on animal studies. The type of human studies that would be required to definitively answer the question of caffeine's safety during pregnancy would be unethical as it could put the unborn baby at risk.

The issue of whether or not the consumption of caffeine plays a role in a healthy pregnancy is sort of a "chicken and egg" situation. No one really knows if it's a case of women who have healthier lifestyles have healthier pregnancies, or women who have healthier pregnancies will have healthier lifestyles. For example, morning sickness is seen as a sign of a strong, healthy pregnancy and that will hardly make a pregnant woman want a cup of coffee. But it could also be true that those who are a slave to the java are doing damage to their baby. The answer is just unclear.

The most recent information available shows that women who consume more than 200mg of caffeine per day have about a 25 percent chance of miscarriage than women who consume less than 200mg.

Problems Associated With Caffeine During Pregnancy

Caffeine, America's favorite stimulant, easily crosses the placenta, which means that an unborn child is also affected by the caffeine that the mother ingests. There are multiple problems that research has at least tentatively linked to caffeine consumption during pregnancy, including:

  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Preterm labor
  • Low birth weight
  • Increased heart rate and respiratory rate in the days following birth
  • Longer amounts of time spent awake after birth
  • Hyperactivity and behavioral problems in childhood

In addition, some of the most common bothersome symptoms associated with pregnancy such as heartburn and insomnia. Also, as the pregnancy progresses, it becomes harder for the mother's body to break down and eliminate the caffeine, which means that it will accumulate faster and allow even more of it to reach her baby.

How Much Is Too Much Caffeine?

The answer to this question is unclear, again, because it would be unethical to do studies on pregnant women and their unborn babies. Because of this, the March of Dimes recommends that women stick to 200mg of caffeine or less per day, with less being better. But the American Pregnancy Association defines "moderate" caffeine intake as being up to 300mg per day, stating that there is no definitive proof that moderate caffeine consumption harms babies. Other sources say that harm to babies doesn't occur until around the 500mg mark. Since it's unclear as to where the harm to babies occurs, it's best to avoid caffeine altogether, which is easier said than done for some.

It's also important to know where caffeine is found. Coffee is the most obvious and concentrated form of caffeine, but products like tea, soda, chocolate and even some over-the-counter pain relievers (the likes of which pregnant women should be avoiding anyway) contain caffeine. The 200mg guideline from the March of Dimes equates to about a cup and a half to two cups of regular coffee per day, or five 12 ounce cans of soda.

[Related: Caffeine Levels In Tea Versus Coffee]

Cutting Back On Caffeine

For those women who worship the coffee pot, a 200mg restriction can seem like torture. And for these women, stopping cold turkey could lead to problems such as headaches, excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, low blood pressure, problems with balance and concentration, and depression. There are some techniques that can make it easier to cut back on the caffeine:

  • Gradually switch to decaffeinated coffee. One simple way to do this is just start mixing decaf with regular coffee in increasing amounts. There are even some varieties sold that are half caffeinated and half decaffeinated. Decaf coffee is perfectly safe during pregnancy.
  • Switch to herbal tea. There are some on the market which are purported to be beneficial during pregnancy, such as Traditional Medicinals Pregnancy Tea. It can be made hot or iced, for those who consume large amounts of caffeinated tea during the day.
  • Switch to caffeine free soda. Switching to caffeine free soda, or mixing caffeinated soda with caffeine free soda in the same way suggested for coffee can help those who are hard core soda drinkers, though soda is a bad idea during pregnancy for another reason. Soda is loaded with empty calories that will just pack on pounds. Gaining too much weight during pregnancy can cause several problems during the pregnancy (see: Understanding Weight Gain And Loss During Pregnancy).

While caffeine is not usually a problem for most people, for pregnant women it could be. So the best idea is to cut back or eliminate caffeine altogether, both for Mom and her baby.

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