Caffeine During Pregnancy: How Much Is Too Much?

Pregnant or not, most people consume caffeine daily. Caffeine is a substance that can cross the placenta from the mother to the baby. Caffeine metabolism while pregnant tends to be slower, leaving the fetus exposed to the substance for long periods. In light of recent research, pregnant women may decide to give up that energizing habit to protect their unborn babies.

Key takeaways:
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    Recent research supports that any caffeine consumed by pregnant women, even in low amounts, can affect the fetus.
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    Current guidelines still suggest caffeine intake by pregnant women is safe when <200mg.
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    Other substances, including our food, contain low amounts of caffeine, so pregnant women should always read nutrition labels.

The actual process of making a baby in a woman's body is, quite frankly, exhausting. If you look forward to waking up in the morning and having a cup of coffee to get you going, you might be saddened to find out from your obstetrician that this is not a good idea while pregnant.

The placenta will usually protect the fetus from certain substances ingested by the mother; however, some things do make it past this gate, and one of those elements that get by is caffeine. The rate at which the mother's body metabolizes caffeine decreases, and caffeine accumulates in the embryonic fluid and fetal tissue.

Current studies on caffeine and pregnancy

A recent study supports evidence that coffee consumption during pregnancy can have lasting effects on childhood at least to the age of eight. The thought is that exposure to caffeine while the fetus is in the uterus can lead to diseases in adulthood. This in-utero exposure could alter our epigenetics, potentially making it more likely to develop certain conditions. We are susceptible to the effects of our environment, even in utero.

Current guidelines state that caffeine intake of 200mg or less (about a 12-ounce cup of coffee) is safe to consume while pregnant. A recent study might be tilting the tables toward a recommendation of zero caffeine intake.

The study, released in October of 2022, concluded that children exposed daily to even low amounts of caffeine while in their mother's womb were shorter than children of mothers who did not consume caffeine while pregnant, although the difference was slight. The researchers analyzed data from previous studies and discovered that any amount of caffeine consumption affected height at least up until eight years of age. Further research will be required as those individuals grow into adulthood to determine how it affects their height.

Prior studies showed that an increase in caffeine consumption from pregnant mothers would increase the risk of obesity in childhood. However, this most recent study did not see any evidence strong enough to support any effect on the child's weight. It noted that the shorter height could contribute to the increased body mass index.

Shorter height raises the risk of cardiometabolic disorders like diabetes and heart disease, which have the potential to cause problems as adults.

The study supports that it might be wise for pregnant women to stop all caffeine consumption because we are starting to see evidence that it can affect the outcomes of children's health. The impacts on adulthood, however, require more research.

How much is too much?

It can be confusing with all the conflicting literature about what amount of caffeine consumption is too much during pregnancy. The rate at which pregnant women in their first trimester metabolize caffeine is about three hours. In the third trimester of pregnancy, it can take about 10 hours to metabolize, meaning that even the smallest amount could affect the fetus.

Until guidelines are changed based on emerging data, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists continue to stick with the current recommendation of under 200mg.

Did you know that caffeine exists in other foods and drinks besides coffee?

Which items contain caffeine?

You can find caffeine in drinks and even in some foods. Caffeine may also be found in some flavorings like guarana because the plants used to make it contain caffeine. Some commonly enjoyed by most items that have caffeine are:

Coffee: varies on the strength of the brew; typically, eight ounces contain 95mg of caffeine. Decaf contains 4mg.

Tea: one cup of black tea has 47mg of caffeine, and green tea has about 28mg.

Soda: a typical can of soda has about 40mg.

Energy drinks: eight ounces has roughly 80mg.

Brownie: can have about 18mg.

Ice cream with chocolate chips: varies depending on the type, typically though 2/3 cup has about 47 to 49mg.

Chocolate milk: eight ounces has about 5mg.

Chocolate syrup: one ounce can contain 26mg.

Chocolate bar: one ounce of dark chocolate has around 24mg.

Safer alternatives

What other options will help you get through the day and provide a safe alternative for your baby? Fortunately, there is hope to give you the energy you need.

Water: your body needs water to create energy. Often the reason you are tired, to begin with, is that you are dehydrated.

Frequent naps: short naps of about 20 minutes can help get you over the exhaustion hump.

Snacks high in protein: protein is essential for creating energy.

Get moving: although it might sound counterintuitive when you're already tired, getting up and moving around, like going for light walks, can give you a nice energy boost.

Making a baby is hard work for a woman's body, and it is not uncommon for you to feel tired during this time. With the emerging research studies supporting the effects of caffeine consumption while pregnant on the baby, it might be a safer option to stop drinking caffeine altogether. The current guidelines remain that pregnant women consume no more than 200mg of caffeine daily. By reading nutrition labels, be aware of ingredients in your foods and drinks, and always play it on the safe side of less is better.

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