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Prenatal Development and Caffeine

By Stephanie Draus, ND ; Updated June 13, 2017

One source of stress in pregnancy is the long list of foods you have to avoid until the birth of the baby, and sometimes while breast-feeding. Soft cheeses, sushi and alcohol are out, and other foods may be restricted or reduced, depending on your doctor and the current health news. A pregnant woman is usually told to reduce coffee, tea and anything else containing caffeine. The fear is that caffeine may cause harm to the fetus.

Caffeine and the Mother

Caffeine is a nervous system stimulant. It increases alertness, concentration and activity levels, and also stimulates digestion. A high intake of caffeine can create symptoms of anxiety, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and heart palpitations. Pregnant women, especially in the last trimester, take longer to clear caffeine from the body, which increases the stimulant's effects. Many women find that their usual daily dose of caffeine creates over-stimulation and digestive problems during pregnancy.

Caffeine and Fetal Development

Caffeine passes through the placental barrier, moving from the mother's bloodstream into the fetus. Several studies have looked for an association between caffeine intake and birth defects. One study of 8,880 women, published in "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" in April 2001, showed caffeine consumption higher than 540 mg daily was associated with low birth weight.

Other studies show possible links between caffeine consumption and neural tube defects, cleft palate and undescended testes. On the other hand, a comprehensive review of the literature, published in April 2011 in "Birth Defects Research: Part B, Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology," concluded there was no good evidence of harm caused by caffeine during pregnancy.

Effects on Child Behavior

If a woman drinks too much coffee during her pregnancy, she may worry the baby will emerge predisposed to anxiety and caffeine cravings. Two studies published in the journal "Pediatrics" in 2012 shed light on this issue. The first study demonstrated that caffeine intake during pregnancy and breast-feeding -- even at more than 300 mg daily -- did not increase nighttime waking in infants. In the second study, caffeine intake during pregnancy did not raise the child's risk of developing behavioral problems.

General Guidelines

It is easy to be worried about the potential harm in a cup of coffee. According to the Motherisk Program of Canada, there is little to no risk at levels of less than 300 mg of caffeine daily, the equivalent of 2 to 3 cups of coffee. Women who are concerned about their caffeine intake should consult their health care provider before conceiving or in the early stages of pregnancy to decide if reducing caffeine is necessary or advisable.

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