Caffeine is a habit-forming substance consumed daily by the majority of pregnant women. Accordingly, it is important that women receive sound evidence-based advice about potential caffeine-related harm. This narrative review examines evidence of association between maternal caffeine consumption and negative pregnancy outcomes, and assesses whether current health advice concerning maternal caffeine consumption is soundly based.
Database searches using terms linking caffeine and caffeinated beverages to pregnancy outcomes identified 1261 English language peer-reviewed articles. Screening yielded a total of 48 original observational studies and meta-analyses of maternal caffeine consumption published in the past two decades. The articles reported results for one or more of six major categories of negative pregnancy outcomes: miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and/or small for gestational age, preterm birth, childhood acute leukaemia, and childhood overweight and obesity.
Of 42 separate sets of findings reported in 37 observational studies, 32 indicated significantly increased caffeine-related risk and 10 suggested no or inconclusive associations. Caffeine-related increased risk was reported with moderate to high levels of consistency for all pregnancy outcomes except preterm birth. Of 11 studies reporting 17 meta-analyses, there was unanimity among 14 analyses in finding maternal caffeine consumption to be associated with increased risk for the four outcome categories of miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight and/or small for gestational age, and childhood acute leukaemia. The three remaining meta-analyses were also unanimous in reporting absence of a reliable association between maternal caffeine consumption and preterm birth. No meta-analyses were identified for childhood overweight and obesity, although four of five original observational studies reported significant associations linking maternal caffeine consumption to that outcome category.
The substantial majority finding from observational studies and meta-analyses is that maternal caffeine consumption is reliably associated with major negative pregnancy outcomes. Reported findings were robust to threats from potential confounding and misclassification. Among both observational studies and meta-analyses, there were frequent reports of significant dose-response associations suggestive of causation, and frequent reports of no threshold of consumption below which associations were absent. Consequently, current evidence does not support health advice that assumes ‘moderate’ caffeine consumption during pregnancy is safe. On the contrary, the cumulative scientific evidence supports pregnant women and women contemplating pregnancy being advised to avoid caffeine.