Are you someone that can't even think of getting out of bed in the mornings without a large, sweetened macchiato to get you going? I'm the same. A massive caffeine hit in those first few hours of being awake is often the only thing that keeps me going. Unfortunately, our hero caffeine is one of a handful of substances that healthcare professionals recommend limiting during pregnancy due to the associated effects on blood flow through the placenta. Limited blood flow has been found to contribute to growth restriction in the womb, and also late stage miscarriage and stillbirth. Official guidelines are in place to inform women what's OK, but new research suggests that perhaps even small amounts of our favorite beverage or chocolate bar could be causing harm.
What Do Experts Say Is OK?
The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women consume no more than 200mg of caffeine per day; the same amount that they recommend for the general public. This figure varies throughout the world based on different healthcare systems, but typically the "safe" amount is considered to be between 150 and 300mg. These limitation are based on dated research from the 1980s, such as the American Journal of Epidemiology's The Association Between Low Birth Weight and Caffeine Consumption During Pregnancy, which concluded a much lower risk of caffeine-related effects for those drinking between 150 and 300mg compared to those drinking more. What appears to be overlooked is that even this study from 30 years ago still found a risk factor for "moderate" caffeine consumption compared to those who drank no caffeine. Yet today, we're inundated with "new" research that questions these guidelines.
Is This Amount Really OK?
Caffeine is one of the few substances that can cross over the placenta. The female body hasn't yet evolved enough to successfully manage today's obsession with coffee shops. Even a single mg of caffeine can pass through the the placenta to the baby, so it's natural to question why healthcare professionals back this notion that a certain amount is risk-free, especially as science doesn't seem to concur.
Researchers have continued to look into the links between caffeine and fetal abnormalities and are consistently finding that the official figures are nonsense. One of the latest studies in this field, published in BioMed Central Medicine, found that pregnant women consuming the recommended 200mg per day were 18 percent more likely to give birth to a below-average weight baby who was at greater risk of breathing and developmental problems than women who consumed less caffeine. The researchers concluded that, in their study, they were unable to find a completely risk-free amount, and likened the effects of 200mg of caffeine to those of maternal smoking and regular smoke inhalation. It's estimated that for every 100mg of caffeine consumed, a fetus is restricted in growth by up to 28g; 0.88% of the average newborn weight.
How Can I Monitor My Intake?
To reduce the risks, it's suggested that women look to minimize their intake from all sources before getting pregnant, although it's important to remember that it's never too late. Even if you're in your final trimester, it's still better to reduce your usual caffeine intake than to not, so try not to get too hung up on those that say you must do this and must do that during your first trimester. Giving up the habit of a lifetime is hard, and many don't seem to realize that.
Take a good look at your everyday diet, and work out where your caffeine intake is coming from. This is probably more difficult than you think. We all know that coffee and tea contains caffeine, but did you know that chocolate, flavored ice creams and yogurts, lemon sodas, some dried fruits, and even over-the-counter pain relief contain anywhere from trace amounts to quite significant quantities of the substance?
Teas, coffees, cola-type sodas, and drugs are believed to be the most widely used caffeine products by pregnant women, so they're a good place to start tracking your intake. The US Food & Drug Administration can provide a list of estimated caffeine levels in standard foods and drinks, and claim the biggest offenders are coffee, cola, and Ben & Jerry's coffee-flavored frozen yogurt.
Only you can decide whether giving up completely is necessary, but do take into account the strong research that suggests the recommended guidelines don't seem to have any link to modern findings. Rather than sticking to 200mg per day, perhaps try and cut down to 100mg which equates roughly to one 5oz coffee or one can of cola. By making some small changes, such as drinking decaf drinks or even swapping to hot cocoa, you could greatly reduce your intake and minimize the effects for your baby.