We’re calling for expectant parents to have more support and guidance on caffeine intake during pregnancy, as the latest study from our Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre shows that 1 in 20 women increased their caffeine consumption while pregnant despite evidence that some caffeinated drinks can endanger babies’ lives. The overall risk is small, but our stillbirth research experts are concerned that many people are unaware of - or confused by - this risk.
What our scientists found
Our research clinic team studied more than 1,000 mothers across 41 UK hospitals between 2014 and 2016, combining information typically used to measure stillbirth risk with an interviewer-led questionnaire about mothers’ consumption of various caffeinated drinks (as well as other risk factors like alcohol and cigarettes that have muddied the waters in previous studies) to see if and when stillbirth may have been linked to caffeine.
Current NHS guidance is to keep daily caffeine intake below 200mg when pregnant, while the World Health Organization (WHO) cites 300mg as the safe limit. This new study reports a 27% increase in stillbirth risk for each 100mg consumed, suggesting that safe limits in these guidelines need to be reconsidered. Although most (54.5%) people cut down on caffeine while pregnant, 1 in 20 actually increased their intake, showing a lack of awareness about caffeine consumption and the risks.
The main source of pregnant women’s caffeine consumption was tea, but this wasn’t found to pose a significant risk due to its low caffeine levels. Filtered or decaffeinated coffee, chai, green tea and hot chocolate were also shown to have no association with stillbirth. Energy drinks had the most impact, leading to 1.85x higher stillbirth risk, followed by instant coffee (1.34x) and cola (1.23x). It wasn’t possible to separate the impact of caffeine from that of sugar in cola and chemicals like taurine in energy drinks, so we need to investigate this further.
Why this research matters
In the UK, 1 in every 250 pregnancies ends in stillbirth (when a baby dies after 24 weeks gestation). Research has identified various things that can raise stillbirth risk, from a mother’s age and ethnicity to consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, but this study aimed to clarify the mixed evidence on caffeine – a key issue in a country where 80% of the population drinks coffee and the average person consumes 211.5 litres of (often highly caffeinated) soft drinks a year.
Caffeine, like many substances found in a normal diet, can be harmful in large amounts; babies can’t process it like adults, so when it crosses the placenta it can endanger their lives. Even though a little bit can be okay, staying on the safe side can help mums to have a healthier pregnancy and the official guidance is to keep caffeine consumption low while pregnant. However, measuring caffeine isn't always easy, and our PregnancyHub team regularly encounters confusion and concern among mums-to-be.
Stillbirth causes often have nothing to do with diet and lifestyle, but we know there are some things we can do to reduce the risk of this tragedy, which is why these latest research findings need to be shared as widely as possible. A poll we ran found 61% of mums would consume less caffeine after finding out how much is ‘hidden’ in certain soft drinks, so raising this awareness is a vital part of our mission to save babies’ lives.
Where to go from here
The stillbirth experts behind this new research have called for its findings to be shared with parents and professionals alike, as the study found that midwives were the biggest influence on pregnant women’s caffeine consumption – but other research shows that caffeine isn’t often mentioned at antenatal appointments. It’s very hard to put these complex risks into simple terms, so healthcare professionals may also need specialist guidance to help them do this.