Can caffeine cause a miscarriage? Can energy drinks make you lose your pregnancy?
In 2020 the Daily Mail published a story about a controversial study, whose author claimed that there was “no safe level” of caffeine for pregnant women. While the overall message of the headline was worrying – especially at first glance, the article itself explained that the study was controversial and that other scientists didn’t necessarily agree with it. However, the point of the article was not to reassure women that caffeine is relatively safe for pregnant women (which is what extensive tests and studies have confirmed), but to make them worry that it’s more dangerous than it really is (which is what the one controversial study claims).
While it’s always helpful to be aware of the effects of any kind of drug on developing babies, it’s not helpful to make people worry about things that aren’t proven to be harmful. So why would a newspaper do this? If you have guessed that it’s purely for hits and comments on the Internet, you’d be spot on. We all know that newspapers like the Daily Mail present information in a way that makes us take more notice. Most of us try not to believe everything we read in the papers or online. The trouble is though, that if the media pays a lot of attention to something that isn’t a big deal, it starts to look like it really is a big deal.
So can coffee cause a miscarriage or not?
According to most studies, no. Very high intakes of caffeine are bad for developing babies. If you’re drinking eight cups of coffee a day, that’s too much. Studies have shown that excessive caffeine can affect the foetus, and is associated with lower birth weight and other complications.
However, it’s difficult to measure the direct effect of caffeine on individual pregnancy outcomes, because it’s unethical to get pregnant women to drink excess coffee, just for the purposes of an experiment. Pregnant women are not lab animals, so it’s also impossible to control all lifestyle variants such as diet, smoking, alcohol and exercise. However, caffeine intake in pregnant women has been studied, and there doesn’t seem to be a direct link between a normal daily coffee intake, and being more likely to have a miscarriage.
Is the caffeine story in the Daily Mail “clickbait” or a “scare story”?
The story about coffee worried people, who reacted in a few different ways. Was this worry unnecessary?
Some women cut out caffeine altogether (which can trigger a very unpleasant withdrawal), and others asked their doctor about it (which is the most sensible thing to do about this type of concern). Some women who had lost a baby felt uncomfortable about drinking coffee during their current pregnancy, in case this may have contributed to their loss.
Pregnancy is stressful enough, but for women who struggle to get or stay pregnant, the thought of accidentally causing a miscarriage by innocently drinking a cup of coffee can be terrifying. Women who have had miscarriages or stillbirths tend to blame themselves, even if nobody else, including the medical profession, feels that they are responsible. This is why an article implying that an ordinary, everyday thing can be a threat to pregnancy or fertility, can be considered a “scare story” or “clickbait”.
It’s worth remembering that the same media that promotes coffee as glamorous, coffee as a treat, tea as a way to catch up with friends, energy drinks as the thing that will get you through a tough shift at work so you can pay for your IVF, can just as easily turn around and imply that you need to worry about your caffeine consumption. It’s always best to speak to your doctor or visit an official health website such as the NHS website if any of these health stories worry you.
Can we really say this article “scared” people?
Is “scared” too strong a word to use? A newspaper would probably say “concerned”. But actually, the more dramatic the headline, the more attention these stories get online.
It’s fairly easy to get the attention of pregnant women and those that are struggling to conceive, by making them wonder if they’re doing something wrong. If a headline makes people stop doing something that they enjoy, that is part of their daily routine and that many other people enjoy doing, for no reason other than they are worried about a negative consequence that isn’t accurate, then it’s fair to say they have acted out of fear.
Why does this type of story get so much attention?
Approximately 1 in 4 pregnancies will sadly end in a miscarriage. Much of the time it’s unclear exactly what caused a pregnancy to fail.
A miscarriage is a deeply personal tragedy and an enduring mystery, and there often isn’t an answer beyond “it just wasn’t meant to be”. Knowing this can help, but it doesn’t do anything to prevent guilt, and the sense that maybe you could have done something to stop it. This is a natural side-effect of grief, and it can remain with us for a long time. We’re always going to be interested to know if things could have turned out differently.
Getting and staying pregnant is very important to many of us, and when this happens, we want to control as much as we can about it. Tapping into the fear that it could be taken away from us at any time is a powerful way to get our attention.
The truth about this particular study into caffeine causing miscarriages
The one, single study that the article is based on was called “alarmist” by experts, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG). Calling a scientific study “alarmist” can be a polite way of saying that a study goes against the vast majority of studies that say something completely different, or their experts largely do not agree with the findings for specific reasons, or that it is likely to freak people out unnecessarily. It’s also worth noting that the RCOG has refused to change their advice to pregnant women based on this study.
What do the RCOG recommend as a safe level of caffeine?
The RCOG obviously have strong views, based on scientific studies, of the safe limit of caffeine for women. They’re not very exciting or newsworthy though, because they basically say “You can drink a bit of coffee, but don’t have too much”.
How much is too much coffee when trying to get pregnant?
200mg a day (very roughly, about 2 cups of coffee) is the official safe limit for pregnant women. The current alcohol level guideline for pregnant women is zero. Official bodies would have no problem recommending a level of zero caffeine, or even half a cup a day if there was any scientific indication that it was dangerous at that level. In a nutshell, the experts don’t think that one or two cups of coffee a day is a problem.
Why this particular study into caffeine and miscarriages isn’t that compelling
The type of study mentioned in the Daily Mail is an observational study. This means that scientists have looked at lots of different studies and correlated the results.
Observations can be made and conclusions can be drawn, and this type of study is an important part of the scientific process. It doesn’t mean that there is a direct and proven link between caffeine consumption and stillbirth, miscarriage or other issues.
The media sometimes don’t point out these small but important details. Very often this isn’t accidental. In deliberately omitting them, they leave the average reader to conclude that this study must be both conclusive and important. However, it is far from conclusive, and it’s only a small part of a much broader and wider study into the effects of caffeine. It’s a storm in a coffee cup, really.
To sum up – is caffeine causing miscarriages, or is coffee safe to drink when you’re trying for a baby or pregnant?
Pregnant women and those who have had a miscarriage or stillbirth are eternally vulnerable to rumours and clickbait. Rest assured, however, that this subject has been extensively studied, and the experts are completely cool with you having a cup of coffee or two during the day. Caffeine is a drug and is not recommended in excessive quantities during pregnancy, but nobody apart from the tabloids are implying that too many cups of coffee a day causes miscarriages.
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