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Is drinking coffee safe during your pregnancy? Get ready for some nuance

The Guardian logo The Guardian 17/10/2019 Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz
a hand holding a cup of coffee: ‘Drinking absolutely no coffee might be the safest option, but the harms, if any, from drinking a cup or two a day seem to be extremely minimal.’ © Getty Images/iStockphoto ‘Drinking absolutely no coffee might be the safest option, but the harms, if any, from drinking a cup or two a day seem to be extremely minimal.’

Pregnancy seems like a scary time. Not just because you’re all of a sudden growing a tiny person inside you – although, yes, definitely that – but because there are a million people trying to terrify you with stories about otherwise-innocuous things. Sushi? Before pregnancy, it’s a delightful lunch. Once you’re pregnant, it’s suddenly horrifying poison, only to be eaten if you want to die of listeria or campylobacter or some other scary-sounding disease.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough, growing a tiny person inside you. And somehow, in the morass of nerve-wracking suggestions, we manage every once in a while to make pregnancy even scarier. This week has been a great example – according to various news sources, pregnant women should stop drinking coffee entirely because even the occasional steaming brew can cause a miscarriage.

Video: How and When to Consume Caffeine for Peak Productivity (My Recipes)

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Fortunately, however, the science isn’t quite as alarming as it sounds, but it’s not a simple issue. Get ready for some nuance.

The stories about the terror of caffeine come from a new study that’s just been presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s annual congress. The paper itself was a relatively small epidemiological study that reanalysed an existing dataset of 1,200 pregnant women and found that any use of caffeine was associated with pregnancy loss. 

Since coffee is the most common way to be exposed to caffeine, the news has mostly focused on the energising beverage. Hence the terrifying headlines warning women to cut coffee out altogether. But before we ditch the coffee bean entirely, there are a few important facts to consider.

Pregnant woman drinking coffee. Aerial close up view. © Getty Pregnant woman drinking coffee. Aerial close up view. You see, this isn’t the first study on caffeine use in pregnancy. It’s not even the biggest one to date – several much larger studies have been done looking at this exact question before. In fact, we have enough research on the topic of whether caffeine causes pregnancy loss specifically that there have been several systematic reviews on the topic. 

This is a type of study whereby scientists comb through all the research that has been published on a topic to look at a subject in light of the best possible evidence, which is usually considered the strongest form of scientific evidence on a topic.

What did they find?

Well, after combining the results of more than a dozen individual studies, the systematic reviews came to slightly different answers. A study in 2015 found that even quite low intakes of caffeine were associated with increased risks of miscarriage, although the increase in risk was small. In contrast, more recent reviews from 2016 and 2017 found that low intakes of caffeine were not associated with an increased risk.

Gallery: Reasons You Should Drink More Coffee Gallery (The Daily Meal)

Another review by the rigorous Cochrane Collaboration looked at experimental studies, where women who drank caffeine were randomised to receive either normal or decaf coffee during their pregnancy, and found no difference in outcomes between the groups.

Overall, the best evidence seems to indicate that small amounts of coffee are unlikely to cause miscarriages, although we can’t rule out the risk completely. That being said, there is very good evidence that high levels of caffeine are bad for developing foetuses. There’s convincing research that lots of coffee can cause babies to have low birth weights, and very high intakes – more than eight cups a day – are almost certainly harmful.

High angle view of a young pregnant woman drinking a cup of coffee at home © Getty High angle view of a young pregnant woman drinking a cup of coffee at home This has led organisations like the World Health Organization and the National Health Service in Britain to issue guidelines recommending that women limit their caffeine intake during pregnancy to 200mg – about two cups of instant coffee – a day. It’s worth noting that the amount of caffeine in coffee is highly variable. A cup of instant coffee is pretty standardised, but espresso can have a bit less or far more caffeine in it, depending on a range of factors.

So who do we believe? The new study or the previous research?

Realistically, the new study doesn’t change all that much. There are already more than a dozen individual studies looking at this topic, so the addition of a relatively small paper that hasn’t even been published yet probably won’t change the recommendations.

In many ways this is more about how public health works than anything – we identify the ideal scenario, but make recommendations based on real life. In an ideal world, pregnant women probably wouldn’t do anything even remotely unsafe, but we live in the real world where pregnant people are people and shouldn’t be locked in a cage of guilt for nine months.

Midsection of pregnant woman having coffee while sitting by window in cafe © Getty Midsection of pregnant woman having coffee while sitting by window in cafe Drinking absolutely no coffee might be the safest option, but the harms, if any, from drinking a cup or two a day seem to be extremely minimal. If you’re stressed about caffeine and pregnancy, the best advice is to talk to your doctor. They are by far the best equipped to give you advice on how to manage your way through the mammoth experience of making a human being.

And don’t worry too much about the headlines. The reality is usually not nearly as scary as the stories make it seem.

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