You Are A Cancer-Loving Baby-Hater If You Drink Coffee While Pregnant

shutterstock_146143274Good news, pregnant women or women who were once pregnant or women who plan on getting pregnant—there is another new study out there to make you feel like crap and question your choices. This time, the latest study rings alarm bells about what many women thought to be safe: drinking coffee during pregnancy.

A study initially examining the effects of caffeine in pregnancy and how it relates to the risk of leukemia was published in Science Daily in 2009. At that time, the study aimed to determine the link between caffeine consumption and cancer risk.

Now, a new study on the same subject has been unsurprisingly overblown in The Daily Mail (I know, I know), and most readers are pissed.

The Daily Mail states:

Pregnant women who drink just two cups of coffee a day could be putting their babies at risk of leukaemia.

A major study has found that their babies are up to 60 per cent more likely to develop the disease during childhood.

Academics say the Government should issue warnings to pregnant women to limit their coffee intake just as they are told to cut back on alcohol and stop smoking.

If you are pregnant, this is your cue to FREAK THE FUCK OUT and drop your tiny cup of rationed coffee in a dramatic fashion. I know that I did this often whenever I read scary research as a pregnant woman. I have to qualify that I am not anywhere close to a scientist. I am relying on smart readers to school me on exactly what is going on here (ahem, Science Mom Aimee!).

However, as I delved into the comments on The Daily Mail article, I was surprised to see that the vast majority of commenters were outraged at the representation of this research.

Some commenters stated:

When you’ve had a child with leukaemia like me, you often wonder if it’s something you’ve done. The guilt never ends, this is just another worry to add to the list along with the vitamin K risk to babies at birth that also can be a contributory factor to childhood leukaemia. Don’t you think we worry enough without adding to the list of possible?

So if the chance of the child developing leukaemia is 0.5 in 100, increasing it by 60% then it will become 0.8 in 100. Wow what a difference……not!

Another case of you can prove anything with figures. If this is correct 3/4 of Americans or people from other heavy coffee drinking nations will all have leukemia.

It’s been a while since I’ve been made to feel guilty over every choice I’ve made during my pregnancies. Thanks. I needed this.

I do think it is important to publish all research related to pregnancy to give pregnant women the tools and information they need to make educated decisions. Still, I am biased in the fact that I stuck with moderation on literally everything through both of my pregnancies and had a grand old time. Suffice it to say, I am partial to the last commenter’s take on this study. It appears to be just one more issue for pregnant women to feel guilty about. Thanks for that.

(Image: Beth Swanson/Shutterstock)

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  • Jennie Blair

    I haven’t been drinking coffee pregnant, but I don’t like coffee and didn’t really drink any besides the occasional frappachino before I got pregnant.

  • Bleu Cheese Bewbs

    I switched to decaf, but that still has some caffeine, so apparently I love some cancer? At any rate, I do agree that it is important that this information be made available to women so that they can make informed decisions about what they are and are not comfortable doing during pregnancy. However, I do wish it wasn’t always so overblown.

  • Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

    I really think that the full factors should be disclosed, though. The commenter about prevalence isn’t wrong.

    For instance, my dad’s gene mutation means he is more likely to get breast cancer. The rate in the general population is about 0.1 per 100. In folks with that mutation, it jumps to 4 per 100. Significantly higher than the general population, yes, but still not at crisis proportions–there’s still 96 people out of that 100 that won’t have breast cancer, even though they have the mutation.

    We see 60% more and think “Oh my god, freak out”, but it’s not really what it seems to be on the surface. It is information that expecting women should have, but we all could use a brush up on statistics and how to read scientific papers.

    • Bethany Ramos

      See, I knew smart people would show up!

    • Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

      I dunno about smart in this instance. I sat in on my dad’s genetic counseling after his results came back positive, and they were very, very specific about what all of the different figures meant. So I’m just regurgitating what some super smart people said. ;)

    • chickadee

      My parents both died of cancer, so when I was talking to an oncologist at a party and th e subject came up (as it apparently does when you talk to an oncologist), she thought I was a medical professional of some kind because of my familiarity with terms and procedures. Terrible way to get knowledge of cancer, I have to say.

    • keelhaulrose

      My dad has had so many medical issues his doctor has written articles on him, and has threatened a book. We’re so versed in medical terminology the doctors at the hospital recognize us (sad in itself) and stop dumbing it down for us, even on the rare occasions it’s a different family member getting the treatment.

    • K.

      Can always count on you!

      Thank you.

  • keelhaulrose

    I love the math commenter. That tiny of a difference is statistically insignificant unless they prove the ONLY differing factor between the women is the amount of coffee they drink. Since no one is going to do a study where they put thousands of pregnant women in tightly controlled conditions and try to see if they can give one set of their babies cancer through coffee this study really doesn’t amount to much.

    • jendra_berri

      Statistically significant means something very different to researchers versus the general public. We hear the word “significant” and think it must be a big deal because that’s what the word means. But to a researcher, basically, it just means more than nothing.

  • ChelseaBFH

    What drives me SO CRAZY about advice to pregnant women is that there’s no nuance to the recommendations. This is a perfect example – I’m betting that most pregnant women who drink coffee drink less than
    two cups a day, and in fact I’ve always heard that coffee is safe IF you stay below that amount. So this doesn’t really change anything, but of course everyone has to seize the opportunity to blame selfish pregnant women for anything wrong with their kids, and if you can use the c-word even better (cancer, of course… what other c-word is there?).

    So I’ll stick to moderation in everything. Except soft cheese – I’ll gobble that stuff up because it’s ALL PASTEURIZED and lack of pasteurization is the one reason it would ever be unsafe.

    • Spongeworthy

      I loved all the sanctimonious crap I took about soft cheese while pregnant. I had a few tell me I was horrible for eating fresh mozzarella because it was soft and therefore would kill my baby. They never bothered to learn WHY soft cheeses were on the no list, or learn that since all cheese sold commercially in the US (unless you went to some tiny artisanal cheese shop) is pasteurized, it wasn’t a concern. Nope, just jumped right in and told me I was a horrible person.

    • Larkin

      So many people don’t bother to find out why things are recommended against in the first place. Even other women who are, or have been, pregnant. It’s nuts.

      I had a coworker, who had a baby just last year, very seriously tell me that I couldn’t wear high heels because it was somehow bad for the baby. When I explained that the only potential danger was falling over, she was genuinely shocked. She thought it legitimately would hurt the baby somehow.

    • R Zhao

      I live in China and that is a very widely held belief here! You also aren’t supposed to wear make up or contact lenses.

    • lea

      “lack of pasteurization is the one reason it would ever be unsafe.”

      Sorry, but no.

      Listeria can be, and is, found in soft cheeses that have been pasteurised. We had a few deaths and one miscarriage here in Aus recently from listeria contaminated, pasteurised cheese.

      I’m not trying to be sanctimonious, really I’m not, just presenting the facts.

      Listeriosis is still exceedingly rare, so I wouldn’t judge anyone in the slightest for deciding to eat soft cheese or any other listeria risk food.

    • ChelseaBFH

      I guess I should have clarified – it’s the only reason it would be less safe than anything else. We’ve had listeria outbreaks from cantaloupe and spinach in the US, but no one tells pregnant women not to eat those. As far as I know (and correct me if I’m wrong) pasteurized soft cheese isn’t any more likely to contain listeria than any other foods.

    • ActionComics25

      I’m a vegan and I was so smug about my pregnant friends not being able to give up soft cheeses (I would never say anything or tell them not to, I’m not a horrible person, just a silently judgey one) until those outbreaks hit.
      I already eat spinach at least once a day I will probably cram it down my throat while pregnant for all of the iron and protein. Nothing is 100% safe and nothing is 100% dangerous take the risks that make your life better and cut out the ones that don’t.

    • Larkin

      Exactly. This is what I always point out about lunch meat, too. From what I’ve seen, you’re far more likely to get listeria from fruit and vegetables than any of the things on the “black list,” yet no one tells you not to eat them. There was just recently a big warning about a batch of listeria-contaminated peaches.

    • ChelseaBFH

      Oh right, peaches – which “What to Expect” recommends eating in the first trimester because they’re unlikely to make you nauseous!

    • K.

      My response to anyone who gave me sh*t about what I consumed while pregnant was:

      “Well, I get into my car and drive too. Pretty sure that trumps everything else.”

  • Cindy Ailey

    I will have to raise my hand and say that a lot of times I drank at least two cups of coffee a day while I was pregnant. In the beginning I tried to keep it down to only one cup of regular, and then switch to decaf, but towards the end when I was exhausted and still working two jobs… sometimes I cheated. Also I was guzzling diet coke in that last month as it was the only thing that really helped with my heartburn.

    So I was a bad mother before my baby even got here I guess.

    • Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

      If you look deep enough, we’re all bad mothers. That’s the very sad truth.

    • Cindy Ailey

      For reasons outlined above – the supposed increased risk is not all that statistically significant. Until a I get the devastating news that my child has cancer. I’m not going to feel guilty for drinking a little extra coffee while I was pregnant.

      Of course, when I decide it’s time for the next baby, I might try and do better.

  • Lilly

    I like the fact they the article omitted the biggest factor which is genetics

    • Wicked Prophet Kay Sue

      Gotta love the sensationalizing of scientific results in the constant drive for more readers….

  • js argh

    Also, Jesus, it’s just one study. Let’s wait until there’s some more research, media, before we continue to crucify pregnant women for their choices.

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      Come, come. Someone must suffer for the sins of mankind–might as well be womankind. X(

  • Shelly Lloyd

    When I was pregnant with my son, 18+ years ago I had never heard of any risk of drinking coffee while pregnant and once I could hold food down (by the 4th month) I drank coffee through out the remaining pregnancy and while breast feeding. And he is turning 18 and never had leukemia.

  • chickadee

    I believe that the research indicates that caffeine can trigger the mutation that causes leukemia, but consuming coffee while pregnant only increases the risk by a percentage-it does not guarantee a trigger. So, as the DM commenter pointed out, it may increase a tiny risk factor to a less ti y factor.

    Science is searching for a way to avoid triggering the genetic mutation that can cause leukemia. Caffeine consumption is by no means a primary culprit.

    • Bethany Ramos

      Thank you, sincerely! These studies often make my head hurt…

    • chickadee

      Science-ese is fun! The primary triggers for the mutation are exposure to radiation and a rare response to a common infection. British scientists wrote (several years ago) about a pair of (I think identical) twins, one of whom developed leukemia while the other did not. They had both been mildly ill, but it turned out that while both had the mutation, only one reacted badly to the infection and triggered.

      Now I need to go Google this to make sure my memory is basically correct….

      ETA here it is..Olivia and Isabella: the identical twins who helped unravel secrets of leukaemia

    • Bethany Ramos

      Good stuff, thank you!

  • 2Well

    Reason 5,082 why I never want to be pregnant: it is too damn difficult to keep track of what you can and can’t eat. I don’t want to live 9 months on kale chips and fresh spring water from the wells in Middle Earth.

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      This is actually something like Reason # 2 for me. Reason # 1 is that I’d be particularly restricted due to having what doctors would classify as a high-risk pregnancy.

    • Larkin

      Eh, I’ve just been taking the “everything in moderation” approach and it’s worked out pretty well so far (less than two months to go!). Aside from a few people–mostly my boss–occasionally clutching their pearls in horror when I eat sushi or drink coffee in front of them. ;-)

  • tSubh Dearg

    I wish I could find it but a comdey show on the BBC did a song about all the things the Daily Mail said could give you cancer. I take everything they write with a large pinch of salt (which probably also causes cancer).

    • Bethany Ramos


    • Lilly
    • tSubh Dearg

      Yes! Just found it myself through illicit work googling on my phone.

    • Lilly

      I am working from home so I can more easily waste time googling random stuff :)

    • tSubh Dearg

      This link shows their video from the show, which is hilarious in and of itself too

  • LadyClodia the Modest Rat

    On a rational level I know the Daily Mail is using this story to get people to read their stuff, as always, and it’s working. And while I don’t think that drinking caffeine while I was pregnant with my second (I had the luxury to abstain with my first,) hurt him it’s still there at the back of my mind. If something were to happen, this would still be in the back of my mind adding to all of the other worries. The same as all of the throwaway stories that I read about what might contribute to allergies in children, and I worried if those things had contributed to my older son developing allergies. We want explanations for why things happen to kids, and the easiest thing is to point the finger at moms. As if we don’t have enough to worry about.

  • Aimee

    I was drinking my coffee (ho ho) this morning when I saw a searchlight shaped like a molecule of DNA hit the clouds over my house!

    So I went and found the abstract of the actual study (the 2009 one was a study that hadn’t actually kicked off yet – this one brought up in the DM article came out this past February) on PubMed; and the odds ratio for risk of acute leukemia goes like this:

    People who ever drink coffee – 1.2
    People who drink low/moderate amounts- 1.16
    People who drink high amounts – 1.72

    Even leaving aside the miniscule risk increase as already mentioned in the DM comments, the dip in risk from “ever drinkers” to “low/moderate” raises a red flag (and an eyebrow) from me. I also don’t see anything in the abstract to quantify what exactly is “low”, “moderate”, and “high”, but I’m wondering if people who see no problem having 5 or 6 cups of coffee a day while pregnant are also perhaps experiencing an abnormal amount of stress and/or engaging in other not-ideal preggo behaviors? Without the full study I can’t see how (or if) they controlled for any other factors like that.

    What I’m basically saying is: Pregnant peeps, have your one or two cups of that sweet nectar of life every day like you’ve already been doing. In fact, I think I’ll join you for a second pour myself.

    • Bethany Ramos

      YAY AIMEE!! How do I make this a featured comment…??

    • MomOf1+2

      Science mom for the win! :)

    • K.

      I’m not a scientist, but even I know that whenever something on the news starts
      with “A study showed…” whatever follows is going to be misinterpreted. It has
      to be. It’s practically not news unless it is.

    • JenH1986

      I’ve mentioned this before but my research professor basically told us that depending on the way a study is worded or the way people referencing the study word it, the exact same study with the exact same results will mean two different things. This study for example is all “DON’T DRINK COFFEE: CANCER”. Whereas in the medical community the study might mean “tell your patients 1-2 cups a day is fine, there is no significant increase in risk of cancer”.

  • jendra_berri

    Media often have no effing clue how to report scientific findings.

    • AP

      In college I took a class with my university’s professors of science journalism. I remember being horrified at how they taught us how to report science!

      “Academics hedge, but journalists have to be definitive. So if a study says, ‘This may cause that and it’s an area for further study,’ you have to interpret that into a concrete finding for your audience, ex: ‘This causes that, according to a study.”

      I had a political science major that was fairly heavy on the statistics/research, so I knew just how wrong it was. Most of my classmates, though, didn’t have that background and had no idea. So frustrating.

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      When I taught remedial college writing, I used Jack Shafer’s Bogus Trends pieces that he used to do for Slate to illustrate that exact point. If nothing else, I hope I managed to get at least a few students to not take everything they read at face value.

  • Brittany Anne

    I’m 38 weeks pregnant. My 15-month-old is cutting molars and hasn’t slept through the night in two weeks.

    You can pry my one measly cup of coffee from my cold, dead hands.

  • Angie S

    I limited myself to 1 8 oz cup of coffee. No expresso or things like that. Honestly I needed it keep things “moving” as it where.

  • Fondue

    I wasn’t a huge coffee drinker before I got pregnant, but this certainly isn’t going to make me give up my once-a-month Dunkin Donuts iced coffee.

  • Michael Weldon

    Seems like a pretty small risk-60% increase in a tiny number to begin with is nothing to run to the hills over.

  • Guest

    I had a child die of cancer as a baby. You really always, always, wonder if it was something you ate or did during pregnancy, no matter how many times the doctor tells you no. And in our case, it was a documented genetic mutation that happened from the first cell division. A random thing that my husband and I didn’t carry, or even carry risk factors for. But still, every time I find out about a pollution thing nearby or the tiniest little risk factor, I start beating myself up again because the one thing you are supposed to be able to do is just not give your baby cancer. Ugh.
    tl;dr totally agree with the conclusion of this article

    • Guest

      Replying to myself to add, the whole time I was pregnant I commuted 2 hours each way to work by bus, got up at 5:00am to catch a 5:55am bus, and got home after 7pm, so you betcha I drank coffee. And managed to never once throw up on the bus, which was not easy.

    • lauramich

      Guest, I just want to give you a great, big hug.

    • Bethany Ramos

      So very very sorry.

    • NotTakenNotAvailable

      I’m sorry. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child, but I do know what it feels like to be blamed for a medical condition you were in no way responsible for causing. I can only imagine how awful reading the likes of the Daily Fail must be for you.

  • Spitting_mad

    Now I have to send this to a friend. The day her husband’s great aunt openly shamed her for coffee consumption on facebook was the highlight of her pregnancy for me.

  • TigersInLove

    I really tried to switch to drinking green tea when I was pregnant with my first, but that made me feel stabby. I felt that I, as a nearly homicidal pregnant woman, might be more of an immediate threat to those around me than a cup or two of coffee was to my fetus, so I switched back immediately.

  • dragonfly02

    Thanks for the article! I just looked this up because I had a waitress freak out on me this weekend when I ordered coffee because of this study. I had never even heard about this before. She got mad at me because after warning me that I was going to “give my baby cancer” (GRRRRRR), I proceeded to still order my coffee and drink 2 cups of it too!!!! Dumbest this I’ve ever heard. I eat healthy and organic most of the time. And coffee is the only caffeine I ever have as I don’t drink soda. And I definitely don’t drink coffee every single day. My doctor says I’m doing great when I fill him in on my pregnancy diet. He even says deli meat is okay, as long as it’s either newly opened package at the deli or I buy the prepackaged stuff in the grocery store. I think I’ll go with my doctor.