Advice on the effects of caffeine on mother and baby during pregnancy, with information on the recomended caffeine content of a diet during pregnancy.
What is caffeine?
Caffeine is a stimulant produced naturally by a range of plants; as a result it is present in many of the food and drinks we consume on a daily basis. Coffee is probably the substance most renowned for its caffeine content but it is also present in teas, hot chocolates, energy drinks, many fizzy drinks and even chocolate! Some medicinal remedies for headaches, colds and flu also contain doses of caffeine.
When consumed, caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and as a result its effects on the human body are numerous. They include mental effects such as increased alertness and improved concentration as well as physical effects such as elevated heart and respiration rates. Once consumed it takes less than an hour for caffeine to influence the central nervous system and elicit the 'alertness' response. It then remains in the body until it is metabolised and disposed of - this can take up to 10 hours during pregnancy.
Effects on Mum-to-be
Consuming large quantities of caffeine is not generally recommended during pregnancy because of the response it elicits from the body. Potential risks include;
- Blood Pressure - Caffeine is known to cause slight increases in blood pressure. Although this isn't generally a problem if it is consumed in moderation, in the event of excessive consumption in conjunction with existing hypertension (high blood pressure) it could have the potential to cause medical complications for mother and baby.
- Hydration - Caffeine is a diuretic; this means that it actively reduces fluid levels in the body by increasing urination. For this reason it has the potential to cause dehydration (a serious condition during pregnancy), as well as swelling and even more frequent trips to the toilet.
- Nutrients - Elements of caffeinated teas and coffees are known to disrupt the absorption of certain important nutrients such as calcium and iron, both of which have essential roles during pregnancy. Therefore, excessive consumption could have a potentially disruptive effect.
- Over stimulation - As caffeine is a stimulant it's regular consumption may produce side effects such as headaches, fatigue and difficulty sleeping
However, despite the aforementioned risks associated with excessive caffeine consumption, moderate consumption of caffeinated substances is unlikely to have any detrimental effects on the well being of a Mum-to-be (unless otherwise advised by your doctor).
Effects on baby
As with the majority of substances that are consumed by mum-to-be during pregnancy, caffeine crosses the placenta and is passed to the fetus where it elicits a similar 'alertness response'. A great deal of research has been carried out on the potential influence of caffeine on fetal development and although several extreme and controversial claims have been made, current assumptions are as follows;
- Caffeine has been found to increase fetal heartbeat and in utero movement. However, this is not thought to have any long term effect on infant development It may influence their sleep-wake cycle so that, like adults, they become more active at certain times than they would otherwise be.
- Moderate caffeine intake is not thought to affect the gestation period or birth weight of an otherwise healthy infant. However, excessive consumption has been linked to lower birth weight and premature birth, especially when in conjunction with other risk factors such as alcohol or cigarettes.
- Current research suggests that a moderate caffeine intake during pregnancy has little effect on the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth. However, several studies have found an association between excessive consumption and an increased risk of these sad occurrences.
Current FSA (Food Standards Agency) guidelines recommend that a Mum-to-be should consume no more than 200mg of caffeine a day. Consumption below and up to this limit is classed as moderate and therefore relatively safe for mother and baby. Click here
for more information on what 'moderate' caffeine consumption actually means and advice on how you can monitor your daily intake.
Generally, cutting back on your caffeine consumption during pregnancy is a good thing for your own health and the health of your child, although the odd cup of tea or coffee is unlikely to do you both any harm. If you are concerned that you are consuming too much caffeine you could try switching to decaffeinated versions of your favourite tea and coffee (check with your doctor before experimenting with herbal tea as not all are suitable for pregnancy). Additionally, flavoured water (check its sugar-free) can provide a good alternative to caffeinated fizzy drinks and help to keep you hydrated. Fortunatley, the caffeine content of chocolate is relatively low so you shouldn't need to deprive yourself!