A couple of decades ago, a number of babies were born with classic heroin withdrawal symptoms – restlessness, inability to sleep, sweating and irritability. Their mothers strongly resisted the suggestion that they were junkies. After further investigation, it was discovered that all mothers were heavy coffee drinkers. Caffeine withdrawal in babies appeared equivalent to withdrawal from strong illicit drugs.
In fact, research seems only to find more ways in which caffeine and reproduction do not mix. One cup of brewed coffee a day halves a woman’s chances of conceiving (probably due to spontaneous abortion). The effect on babies may be more far-reaching. Crossing easily over the placenta, caffeine can build up in foetal tissue. Just 2 or 3 (brewed) cups a day during pregnancy reduces infant birthweight and retards development. In fact rodent studies suggest that effects may reach beyond the first generation, with grandchildren also potentially affected by heavy caffeine use.
Stopping caffeine once pregnant may not prevent all problems. Caffeine consumption in the menstrual cycle prior to conception may affect the health of future children. Similarly heavy caffeine consumption can damage sperm quality.
Most prenatal health guides now recommend low caffeine intake for expectant mothers. Caffeine is present in varying amounts in numerous foods and beverages including coffee, tea and soft drinks (such as colas).
With so much bad news about caffeine and reproduction, chocaholics must become quite depressed when facing pregnancy. However recent reports suggest that the news may not be as bleak as first thought. Contrary to popular belief, chocolate has very limited quantities of caffeine. Instead it contains another compound, theobromine. Like caffeine, theobromine is a stimulant with mood altering properties. Theobromine is also found in lower quantities in tea, but not in coffee. While dark chocolate has shown possible, limited health benefits, milk and white chocolate do not appear to have any such benefits – probably due to the high fat and high sugar content.
In terms of pregnancy, two studies have shown the benefits of moderate consumption of chocolate during pregnancy.
A recent study by Maconochie et al, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has linked regular chocolate consumption with reduced first trimester (<13 weeks) risk of miscarriage. They showed a slight but significant drop in miscarriage rates for women who consumed almost daily chocolate.
Another study from Finland showed mothers who consumed daily chocolate whilst pregnant rated their children as more happy (increased laughter/smiles, reduced crying) at 6 months of age. Interestingly, whilst maternal stress during gestation was a predictor of fear in 6 month old babies, this was largely negated by chocolate consumption. This could mean that maternal chocolate consumption could not only improve the temperament of babies, it could reduce the known effects of maternal stress (whilst pregnant) on new-borns*.
But be warned. Excess chocolate consumption during pregnancy also appears to lead to withdrawal symptoms in infants. Moderation is the key!
* (Note: the study did not adjust for continued maternal chocolate intake after birth – chocolate in breastmilk could account for differences in baby temperament. The authors also suggest that chocolate could improve maternal mood and thus mother/child interractions and results in children could be a result of psychological benefits rather than/as well as physiological benefits. I also wonder if continued chocolate consumption merely made mothers perceive their children as happier. It certainly makes me see the world as a happier place.)
Cambria S, Manganaro R, Mami C, Marseglia L, Gemelli M. (Pre-print online 2006) Hyperexcitability Syndrome in a Newborn Infant of Chocoholic Mother. Am J Perinatol.Eskenazi, B. (1999). Caffeine: Filtering the Facts. New England Journal of Medicine, 341(22), 1688-1689.
Maconochie N, Doyle P, Prior S, Simmons R. (Pre-print online 2006) Risk factors for first trimester miscarriage – results from a UK-population-based case-control study. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology
McGowan JD, Altman RE, Kanto WP Jr. (1998) Neonatal withdrawal symptoms after chronic maternal ingestion of caffeine. South Med J. 81(9):1092-4.
Pollard, I (1994) A Guide to Reproduction: Social Issues And Human Concerns Cambridge University Press.
Raikkonen K, Pesonen AK, Jarvenpaa AL,Strandberg TE. (2004) Sweet babies: chocolate consumption during pregnancy and infant temperament at six months. Early Hum Dev. 76(2):139-45.