A great number of people cannot spend a day without consuming a cup of coffee, while others are addicted soft drinks like Coca Cola. However, if caffeine is taken in excess during pregnancy, there is a high possibility that it might cause damage to the woman and the unborn baby.
Caffeine is a chemical found in many foods and drinks, including coffee, tea and Coca Cola. It affects the nervous system and can cause irritability, nervousness and sleeplessness.
Rene Tabaro, a senior nutritionist and dietician at Oshen-King Faisal Hospital, Kigali, says that excessive consumption of caffeine can cause immediate miscarriage.
Sapience Kengayiga, a nutritionist at University Teaching Hospital of Butare, says that caffeine stimulates the nervous system and often during pregnancy, the woman is even more sensitive. It can cause nervousness, palpitations and headaches.
“Caffeine can accentuate all the small, frequent pains of pregnancy including nausea or heartburn. If you have trouble making restful nights, caffeine will not help with anything and will in many cases worsen sleep disorders and insomnia,” she says.
Tabaro also notes that caffeine increases the loss of fluid and may decrease the absorption of iron; this precious mineral is essential for pregnant women because of the increase in blood volume and which is absolutely necessary to oxygenate the baby well.
Kengayiga says that pregnant women should not drink too much coffee, as caffeine increases the risk of preterm birth, low birth weight, and stunting. The dose of caffeine that can be safely absorbed for the baby is 200 milligrams, which corresponds to two cups of coffee of 150 ml a day.
She stresses that the harmful effects of caffeine on the foetus remain real. Consumption of non-decaffeinated coffee should, therefore, be reduced for pregnant women who drink more than two cups a day. And for all, it is important to remember that this substance is present in other drinks too, like tea, caffeinated soft drinks, and chocolate.
“Caffeine increases the release of catecholamines; these are chemical messengers that can cause narrowing of the vessels (vasoconstriction) to feed the placenta, thus, a lack of oxygen for the foetus (foetal hypoxia).
“This lack of oxygen in the foetus at the end of the pregnancy can have serious consequences. This may result in the later occurrence of epileptic seizures (this is a period of symptoms due to abnormally excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain),” she notes.
According to Dieudonne Bukaba, a private nutritionist in Kigali, while drinking large amounts of caffeine does not appear to cause birth defects, it may make it more difficult to become pregnant.
Kengayiga adds that excessive caffeine can also have a direct effect on the cardiovascular system of the foetus, resulting in tachycardia, a heart rate that exceeds the normal resting rate and cardiac arrhythmia, which occurs when electrical impulses in the heart don’t work properly.
Bukaba notes that most of the evidence on the risk of caffeine use and pregnancy is not conclusive. It suggests that having less than two standard cups of instant coffee a day is safe.
He explains that caffeine during pregnancy in the first trimester is certainly harmful to the baby. Studies suggest that the weight of the baby may reduce due to the intake of coffee every day.
“Caffeine increases the gestation period. It means that the pregnancy period tends to be longer if one is addicted to coffee. Some studies suggest that caffeine can create certain long-term health problems for the baby,” Bukaba states.
Too much caffeine, like coffee, can stop the growth of the body structure of the unborn baby and its development. It also affects the construction of the baby’s hair growth, Tabaro notes.
Bukaba further says that coffee also speeds up the heart rate as well as blood pressure. When a woman is pregnant, it is not advisable to stimulate her system too much. Caffeine during pregnancy dehydrates the system.
However, Tabaro explains that when taken in moderation, caffeine has some values; for instance, it breaks down body fat and destroy free radicals in the body.
Coffee contains several important nutrients, including riboflavin (B2), pantothenic acid (B5), manganese, potassium; magnesium and niacin. It releases the nerves and may lower risks of Parkinson’s disease, he says.